It’s a sad fact of life that celebrities generally command more attention and adulation than we mere mortals. For better or worse, things that come out of their mouths have more clout (at least among certain audiences) than if we were to say them ourselves, despite our obvious intelligence, talent and impressive job titles. So, the question is how to help celebrities use that clout for good and not just to sell movies.
Andre Blackman pointed me to a video (above) just posted of an interview with American Idol winner Jordin Sparks, who is visiting Ghana right now to help the organization Malaria No More. From what I could tell, she is a perfect spokesperson. She’s articulate, knows her stuff about the topic, is enthusiastic for the cause, is timely (she is the most recent AI winner), and creates an emotional connection with the importance of the work MNM does.
Last week, I attended a panel discussion sponsored by PIRATES (The Print, Interactive, Radio & Television Educational Society) on how Hollywood and celebrities can be a force for good. Panelists included David Michaels, who produces, among other things, the Ribbon of Hope Awards honoring television programming on AIDS; Marcy De Veaux, who consults with media companies on diversity-related issues; and Alison Arngrim, who was the epitome of nastiness for my generation as Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie, but who has redeemed herself as a committed advocate on behalf of people with AIDS, abused children and others.
Some of the key points that were made by the panelists include:
- It’s simply a fact that celebrities wield the power. Alison recounted how she was asked to appear on Larry King to talk about legislation she was advocating. When she offered to bring along experts working on the campaign with her, the show’s producer immediately quashed the idea, saying, “And what show were they on?”
- Sometimes you bring the cameras to the cause with the celebrities, or you bring the cameras to the celebrities with the cause — both are okay and can help you achieve your goals.
- There are “good celebrities” — who understand why it’s important to help your cause and want to get involved — and “bad celebrities” — who are there because their publicist told them to go. But again, both can bring you publicity.
- If you can convince a publicist of the merit of your cause, he or she may be able to deliver their whole stable of celebrity clients, in addition to the one you were originally trying to get.
- Look for people who have been personally affected by your issue to serve as your spokespeople. For example, the actor Peter Gallagher got involved with an Alzheimers organization because his mother had the disease.
- If you bring on a celebrity, make sure he or she is prepared to talk intelligently about your issue. At the very least, provide an index card with key bullet points about your organization and issue.
- If your issue is controversial in any way, your celebrity needs to be prepared to answer questions about whether they are affected by the issue personally. As Alison spoke out about AIDS after the actor who played her TV husband died from the disease, she was continually asked whether she also had AIDS. When she was advocating for legislation to help abused children, she was asked directly whether she had been abused herself (turns out she had, and decided to talk about it publicly at that point).
- Looking for someone to be your organization’s main celebrity spokesperson — as opposed to showing up at a one-time event — is a “headhunting operation.” You need to make sure there is a good fit between the person and the organization.
- Don’t use a guilt trip to convince a celebrity to get involved. Frame it in terms of hope, focusing on the good that person can do and what a great experience it will be. And of course, what’s in it for them?
And how do you get in touch with the celebrity you have decided would be perfect for your organization? You can find information on who represents that person on IMDb Pro (has a monthly fee) or by calling the Screen Actors Guild, which has a service that will provide you with the name of the PR rep for the person you’re looking for. You will receive the most help from the celebrity’s manager or publicist, not the agent.
Working with celebrities is not always easy, but the payoff can be big. Think carefully about whether it fits with your strategy and audience. And if it does, give it a try.
For another perspective on this issue, check out this older post from Citizen Brand that was so good I’ve been saving it until I could use it. And I just learned from Stephen Dann that dead celebrities can also be spokespeople so don’t discount someone just because they can’t actually talk anymore.
UPDATE (2/22/08): I just came across this blog from Do Something called CelebsGoneGood. It highlights the good things that celebrities are doing or talking about, and could be a great source for finding out which celebs are interested in which types of causes. And it’s just good to see good news about celebrities for a change.