Celebrity PR: The Power of Celebrity

Henry's House MD Julian Henry, who has clients including Victoria Beckham, reveals how PR campaigns can capitalise on celebrity.

Celebrity PR: The Power of Celebrity
Celebrity PR: The Power of Celebrity

Making sense of celebrity is difficult. How can Robert De Niro and Jade Goody be part of the same world? Let's start by defining celebrity PR: this isn't Ulrika Jonsson being paid a couple of grand to turn up at a photocall - it is public relations that utilises a talent-based strategy as a means of marketing a brand.

Celebrity is more than a media creation - it dominates our culture. The equity of soap stars, footballers and actors is something that we trade socially in pubs and bars. There is such a thing as 'responsibility celebrities' who have the power to inspire. Think of Bob Geldof or Annie Lennox. These are stars who have shown you can combine a broad appeal with responsibility towards an audience.

Celebrity is taking on a more powerful role in people's lives. Marketing and PR executives might look at PR, advertising and direct marketing, but without a strategy to utilise the phenomena of celebrity, they are missing a valuable link to consumers' lives.

Agencies immersed in celebrity should invent a science to make sense of the world they work in: celebrification.

This is the process that human life undergoes when it is placed under the intense glare of the media spotlight. No one is exempt: neither footballers, pop stars, politicians, people who work for politicians, nor the person next door.

Let's accept that our society is living in a state of celebrification.

How can you fumble your way through this? The most obvious method of celebrifying a brand is simply to buy a bona fide celebrity. Brands like Adidas demonstrate how this should be done. Its TV commercial featuring David Beckham and Jonny Wilkinson was basically a celebrity PR stunt filmed as an ad.

Value of celebrity endorsement

It is ironic that a commercial demonstrates the power of PR. But increasingly the advertising business has become the best window for great PR work - and advertising agencies understand the power of celebrity better than PR agencies do.

Companies today spend many millions on celebrity endorsement. It happens in every sector and has helped to change the media's attitude to PR.

Celebrities who sign sponsorships are great for the tabloids, and so the media are more than happy for creative PR people to take the lead.

This is because people get so involved in celebrity life. In previous eras there was no 'back end' to celebrity. You would never have seen the likes of Madonna washing her car or Cameron Diaz picking her nose. But in today's world of Heat, The Osbournes and I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!, everything celebrity-wise is out there.

As a result it can be very expensive to buy in. The Express Group was said to have paid £360,000 to buy Jordan's services after I'm A Celebrity. The tabloids benefited from a circulation rise of 20 per cent around the ITV show.

But there are also risks. When three S Club 7 members, who Henry's House represented, were caught smoking dope, the front page of The Sun had the headline 'Spliff Club 7'.

A well-thumbed crisis PR manual is needed to manage this kind of situation and move on. People thought our agency had set the whole thing up. They were disappointed when told that this was not the case.

Shaping popular culture

Trust with the media is more important than any other part of the PR business, so linking a brand with a celebrity via sponsorship can be expensive and risky. But there is another way to engage the public through a celebrity strategy.

Our biggest client is Coca-Cola: one of its brands is Schweppes. We promoted its advertising campaign - developed by Mother - based around celebrity lookalikes carefully photographed by artist Alison Jackson. This idea was inspired by the alternative reality that exists in people's minds about their relationships with celebrities.

When we were promoting this idea we quickly discovered that the fact they were fakes wasn't important to people. It was the idea of what these 'celebrities' might be up to that connected with people. The truth is, this is an artificial world of celebrity - and it's fun.

For brands this is an opportunity. You don't need to spend a million pounds on signing up Tiger Woods or Michael Schumacher. As the Schweppes campaign proves, creativity is the basis of the communication. If you want to get celebrified, all you need to do is fake it. And some companies have become so fed up with celebrities that they have decided to invent their own.

Pop Idol is a TV format for inventing celebrities. More than ten million people voted for Michelle McManus to win the last series. Subsequently, winners of these shows appear in the market with a ready-made relationship with an audience.

The celebrification of the ordinary man is something that we should welcome.

Too many people are snobbish about celebrities when they say such and such doesn't have any talent - this is missing the point. The famous have succeeded in taking their personal brand to market and creating a demand for their product. These celebrities have a valid form of brand equity.

Who would have thought that a pair of skinny middle-distance runners in string vests would become the hottest thing in advertising in 2003?

The 118 118 runners might seem like a long way from the super-clean brand celebrities of yesteryear - the Milky Bar Kid, the Honey Monster, the Nescafe couple, the secret Lemonade drinker - but they are all part of the same tradition.

The 118 118 runners caught the public mood because they embraced the celebrity lifestyle. They've appeared on TV chat shows; they've had a fashion makeover.

With this kind of DIY talent, it is no surprise that the celebrity PR business is booming. Creative brands and global corporations hold the key to shaping the future of our popular culture.

THE COMMODITY OF STARS

Hamish Pringle, director-general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, is author of Celebrity Sells

'Most people associate celebrities with brands in the context of a TV idea, such as the Prunella Scales "Every Little Helps" campaign for Tesco that was said to have generated £2.2bn in incremental sales. But a firm should not forget the impact that a star's personal appearance can make.

'The presence of a celebrity at a launch event can guarantee the presence of the media in a way that a speech by the marketing director never can.

Look at the media coverage Pepsi achieved with the red-carpet strategy for the 'premiere' of its celebrity-laden 'Gladiator' TV ad.

'Most importantly, agencies working in PR know something that those in other areas of marketing comms may not: PR is one of the most effective tools of communication in a fragmenting landscape.

'People are confronted by more than 250 TV channels and a similar number of radio stations. Newspapers mutate into sections and supplements, direct mail clogs our letterboxes and email blocks up in-boxes. PR can cut through all this clutter and has a multiplier effect in the new world that requires consumer 'pull' rather than company 'push'.

'While this is a generic benefit of PR, it is clear there are certain vehicles that accelerate and maximise impact. Old chestnuts like market research surveys still work, for example. But a tale with a celebrity overlay can quickly become gold-dust and it's easy to see why stars are so powerful. A story that links a brand to a celebrity is more acceptable to cynical journalists. It also sells more papers and commands bigger ratings.

'Right now, those brands are reaping the dividend of fame. The stars having delivered, the brand life goes on. Happily for the brands, but perhaps less so for the stars, this extraordinary life may lead to events, allegations, denials and acres of newsprint, which increase the fame of the celebrities involved and the brands associated with them. This is the 'war dividend' of celebrity sponsorship.

'But in each of these situations there is always the possibility the star may cross the line between misdemeanour and illegal activity: the line between Britney Spears accidentally drinking Coke rather than Pepsi and OJ Simpson being accused of murder while contracted to Hertz.

'The skill of PROs is to contract celebrities in such a way that their clients benefit from the serendipity of star life while being insulated from its downsides. Editorial coverage has always been more highly valued than paid-for media, and celebrity stories are a pretty good guarantee that associated brands will get a mention.'

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