Celebrity clients can bring cachet - and headaches - to a PR firm. Anita Chabria looks at ways of creating synergies between the stars and the corporate brands.
Everyone wants to be a part of Hollywood. In the current celebrity-crazed era, and with corporations desperately searching for new and fresh ways to reach consumers, the lure of star power is almost irresistible.
For PR firms that have celebrity clients, the ever-growing interest in tapping their media power has helped agencies lure big accounts with the promise of access and given them star status in their own right. "Working with celebrities is an instant sexy factor," says 5W PR's Ronn Torossian, whose celebrity clients include Jalen Rose and Lil' Kim.
"There is a very big plus in representing people that are in the news," adds Howard Rubenstein, whose clients include Rupert Murdoch and George Steinbrenner. "It helps you establish your name and create a wider recognition than if you were handling relatively unknown individuals."
But "representing celebrity clients is a very tricky field," warns Rubenstein, one that has as many pitfalls as possibilities. Those who have focused their firms on leveraging Hollywood access say the number one rule is not exploiting those relationships, which are often so personal that they create "a fine line between friends and clients," says Torossian.
Bragman Nyman Cafarelli's Michael Nyman says that star clients always need to feel protected and know their interests are a priority for the agency. So when pitching new clients, most celebrity PR handlers say they take a cautious approach to putting names out there.
"It's not about saying, 'Here's our celebrity clients,'" explains Nyman. "It's probably the last thing we'd really talk about."
Rubenstein agrees, noting that one benefit of representing well-known names is that most prospective clients already know it before they even begin talks, making it unnecessary to publicize that fact.
"People know I have these clients," he says. "They just know we handle them and assume if you are working for them, you must be good."
Tom Tardio, CEO of celebrity powerhouse Rogers & Cowan, agrees and says that promoting a specific client list can actually be a detriment because what companies are really after - and what shops like his offer - is not just access to a specific client, but wider insider knowledge of the entertainment business and access even to stars that aren't represented by the agency.
"A lot of the consumer goods companies come to us and say, 'We need help in developing a celebrity relationship,'" says Tardio. "We can be that bridge and build that alliance."
Still, many who work with celebrities say that companies do want the reassurance that an agency can reach the stars they are interested in, making it a necessity not to shy away from the topic if it comes up.
"I absolutely let my clients know that I have those relationships," says Rita Tateel, president of The Celebrity Source, which obtains star participation in events. "It saves a lot of time and money and aggravation."
Henry Eshelman, managing director of BWR, adds that highlighting celebrity relationships doesn't have to be blatant to be useful. "We can trade on it in a subtle way," he says. "You can use them to burnish the reputation of the agency [and] say, 'This is our roster, and it includes people like Reese, or Brad, or Chris Rock.' We can refer to that in a proposal. You can say, 'We represent Brad Pitt,' and that will impress people."
But no matter how A-list that client roster is, all the experts agree that representing a star is in no way a guarantee that corporate clients will win any kind of access to them.
"Brad Pitt will do what Brad Pitt wants to do," warns Eshelman. Torossian says that "agencies need to do a good job of managing a client's expectations," to avoid problems.
"From the start of the conversation, we dramatically state that there is no guaranteed access," says Tardio. "Celebrities don't like to be utilized for a very consumer-driven need. They don't want to be forced into any relationship with a product or company. It has to be natural."
Torossian says that means he won't "ask a professional basketball player to endorse alcohol," for example. "It's got to make sense," he says.
Tardio says Rogers & Cowan takes managing expectations so seriously that it will turn down clients that don't accept the limitations of reaching out to stars.
"We will not accept a client that is demanding to put a product in the hands of a celebrity," he says. "It's best to do that because obviously they don't understand, and it's terrible for your brand reputation if you can't deliver."
Nyman adds that, as some corporations begin to take on star status of their own, another challenge of working with celebrities is helping them to see the new opportunities for working with corporate America.
"You've got corporate brands that have taken on star-like qualities," he points out. "You've got clients on the corporate side that are equally as powerful and popular," creating unique new opportunities for synergy.
Aside from the delicate nature of handling celebrity-corporate relationships, those who do it day to day say there are a lot of difficulties that these niche clients bring, from bad behavior to 2am phone calls to being a little truth-impaired at times.
For example, celebrities are not always as press-savvy or concerned with keeping press as happy as a PR rep might like, yet they are under constant media scrutiny. That means if they tell a lie or, say, throw a phone, "then the PR person gets the blame, too," points out Rubenstein. That can hurt an agency's media relationships, and "that will affect all of your clients," he says. "The business editor or the gossip columnist, seeing that you've lied to them, will not trust the next thing you tell them." And, he warns, "If you lose a celebrity client, it usually gets publicized."
Still, those who play in the entertainment space aren't complaining - too much, anyway. But they are also realistic about how celebrity PR works and about just how much an agency can depend upon it.
At the end of the day, most say, it's the corporate clients who build a firm's bottom line, and the stars are often only a testament to how Hollywood perceives the agency, rather than a core revenue-driver.
"Yes, it's fun, and it has value for our business," says Torossian. "But celebrity isn't something you can aggressively chase. It's about who you can get to."
Do recognize that representing stars brings instant attention to the agency
Do know that celebrity clients are high maintenance
Do connect clients when the fit is right
Don't exploit the relationship. Stars don't want to hear of corporate plans that aren't organic
Don't make unrealistic promises to corporate clients
Don't expect glamour - stars are hard clients to please