PR TECHNIQUE: How to reach for the right stars

Big spending on big stars will not guarantee the right spokesperson. Anita Chabria learns that smaller celebs with stronger ties to a client can be better representatives.

Big spending on big stars will not guarantee the right spokesperson. Anita Chabria learns that smaller celebs with stronger ties to a client can be better representatives.

Hiring a high-profile celebrity as the spokesperson for a PR campaign is a reliable way to pick up quick media interest. Even those whose wattage isn't what it used to be can provide enough of a spark to draw press. But before you pitch your clients the idea of a Tom Cruise, or even a Tom Arnold, as the front man on your new toothpaste account, take some tips from the experts on how to find and land the right star. "The first thing to consider is what are the budget parameters?" says Mark Beal of Alan Taylor Communications in New York. "Because that is going to pigeon-hole you." Hiring an A-list star is an expensive proposition. Many film actors won't consider a campaign in the US, fearing that shilling for corporations weakens their image and credibility with fans. Other top talent, such as Jamie Lee Curtis or Catherine Zeta Jones, have been known to lend help to campaigns, but with steep price tags attached. Often, that means clients need to come with the cash. (It can run up to $150,000 for a few days of time for a big name, though lesser lights can sometimes be had for a few thousand.) But some stars are more interested in donations to favorite charities or even gifts - called "swag" in Hollywood. "Believe it or not, it can be motivating factor if there is enough of it," says Rita Tateel of LA-based The Celebrity Source, which helps PR companies and others find celebrity spokespeople. "We always try to build into our requests perks and gifts because even when stars are being paid, if we can give them something they wouldn't normally buy themselves, it works." Once you know what the client can afford, it's time to find out what the client needs. High-profile stars may seem like the obvious choice, but often times it's better to choose a lower-profile person with more to offer the campaign. If the candidate has a personal reason to be involved with the product or issue, it makes for a stronger story, and often a deeper commitment to the project. "You have to look for someone who has a credible match," says Tateel. "Through personal experience or interest, they must have connection to whatever it is you're trying to hook them into. It's very important that the celebrity be able to speak from experience and knowledge." Jonathan Holiff, president and CEO of The Hollywood-Madison Group, which helps match corporations with celebrity spokespeople, points to Martin Scorsese as a big name that was lured into being a spokesman for Philips Electronics for reasons other than money. Although the director does not often do advertising, "we discovered that Martin is a huge advocate for the wide-screen format," he says. "We found his button, and found that we could develop a campaign that took on the shape of a public-education campaign called 'See what you are missing.'" Holiff believes using that type of creative approach can be vital to winning a star's time, and creating a meaningful PR effort. It's also good to look outside of the narrow niche of Hollywood for the right person. Think in terms of the market and demographic you are trying to reach. Are there local luminaries who might fit the bill? "You have celebrities, you have sports figures, and then you have a third category which has become very popular - experts, authors, physicians, fitness trainers, and chefs," notes Darcy Bouzeos of Chicago-based DLB, a company that helps evaluate and secure celebrity spokespeople. "Those individuals have the credibility. They have their own little niches." Beal uses the example of his client, Sara Lee Bakery Group. When the company launched new bread last year, it used wives of famous sports figures in selected markets. Because the media did not often have access to the women, and because they had a direct tie to their families' grocery shopping, the campaign was a success. "It was a creative way to achieve the objective, but not necessarily retain the biggest names in the market," he says. It's also important to consider the potential spokesperson's personal history and abilities. Is there anything in the person's background that doesn't mesh well with the image of the client? "Procter & Gamble. That's just an example of a company that is very conservative," says Holiff. "It doesn't want to work with people who have checkered pasts. It's very much a family-driven operation. As such, celebrities that have had children out of out of wedlock or numerous divorces might not be appropriate." It's also essential to make sure the star has the ability to convey the message well, and handle the situations the campaign will present. Being a good actor isn't a guarantee of being good with the unscripted coverage called for by media appearances. Some experts caution against using a star that hasn't worked on a PR campaign before, since they present an unknown risk. "If you've got four minutes on Today, and they can't get your message out in the way you want it delivered, then it's not worth it," says Beal. "The biggest name in the world doesn't mean they can deliver a message." Bouzeos says to ask, "Is that person going to be comfortable gripping, grinning and doing the schmoozing that is sometimes required at a public event?" When you have a shortlist, many pros back up their insights with numbers. Different ratings for a star's appeal are available, with Q Scores from Manhasset, NY-based Marketing Evaluations/TvQ being one of the most used measures of a celebrity's reach. The Hollywood-Madison Group also offers a data bank of background information called the Fame Index. While this kind of research can be costly, it provides the client with a measurable potential for the spokesperson. Once you find the right person, don't make the mistake of thinking the job is done. Stars are tough to work with because they have busy schedules and oftentimes high expectations - so plan on a labor-intensive, detail-oriented effort on the agency side to make sure the star is prepared to shine. ----- Technique tips Do consider budget constraints - booking a high-profile star is expensive Do find someone that has a personal connection to the campaign Do invest in background research to make sure that your spokesperson's image and history are a good fit for the client Don't only consider A-list stars. Many campaigns would work with local celebrities Don't assume actors will be good spokespeople. Working without a script is a different skill set Don't underestimate the challenges of working with a star. They're used to star treatment. 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