In healthcare efforts, stars bring risk and reward

In promoting everything from frozen foods to cell phones, PR firms have tapped - sometimes effectively, other times not - countless actors and singers to help consumers connect with brands. In working with healthcare clients, though, the choice to include stars offers a unique set of challenges.

In promoting everything from frozen foods to cell phones, PR firms have tapped - sometimes effectively, other times not - countless actors and singers to help consumers connect with brands. In working with healthcare clients, though, the choice to include stars offers a unique set of challenges.

"Quite often, celebrities are not good spokespeople because they are not always seen as authentic and relevant unless they have a personal experience or connection with the [disease]," says Paul Lerner, founder of healthcare firm Lerner Communications. "With young people especially, I've seen there's a lot of skepticism."

Still, he says, particularly in doing an event or benefit, "it's great if you can have celebrities involved. It helps you get attention, in terms of publicity. It can be hard to get media interested in attending and talking about an event. Celebrities make a huge difference."

But "celebrities don't build brands," warns Jeffrey Nemetz, principal and cofounder of Chicago-based Healthcare Branding Group. Branding is about business growth, he says. And if a celebrity spokesperson doesn't directly impact growth, the partnership may have been "nice or interesting," but, ultimately, it was just an expensive investment that didn't really add brand value. At times, Nemetz says, celebrities even add negative value to a brand.

"It's a risky strategic step in the brand positioning of a healthcare enterprise, product, or service," Nemetz says. "Healthcare is a serious business. There must be some really important evaluation [before going the celebrity route]."

Girlpower founder and former PainePR managing partner Linda Landers says that in crafting campaigns, she's inclined more toward "celebrity professionals," such as authors, dieticians, fitness experts, and medical pros who have made names for themselves in their own fields, than celebrities at large.

"Their backgrounds validate what they're saying," she explains, giving them more credibility. That is especially important when reaching out to the moms of the world.

In addition, Landers says, there may be more financially effective ways to move the needle for a health or wellness client.

"From the PR side, being the person hiring these people, you have to weigh the costs: from $300,000 to $400,000, going up to a $1 million." Certainly stars can help generate media coverage, she notes, "but people are savvy enough to know they're being paid for that."

"We all know consumers are very interested in health news and in celebrities," notes Paul Graves, a New York-based team leader at Chandler Chicco Agency. "In terms of trying to educate the media about treatment options and how to reach patients, using celebrities can be valuable.

"It's also great to have a [healthcare] campaign where you can connect a celebrity on a national media level, and then locally, as well," he adds. Having celebrity spokespeople interact with clinic staff, patient support groups, and advocacy organizations in local markets can be extremely impactful PR components, Graves says.

Still, "you never want to do just a celebrity component," he stresses. "It should be part of a mix of outreach efforts. Doctors, nurses, patients, advocates: Everybody gets the information they need."

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