Stars need substance in public affairs initiatives

When agencies help their consumer-facing companies select a celebrity spokesperson to promote a product or event, all that's usually required is smooth skin or an engaging personality. Yet for public affairs campaigns, the bar is a bit higher.

When agencies help their consumer-facing companies select a celebrity spokesperson to promote a product or event, all that's usually required is smooth skin or an engaging personality. Yet for public affairs campaigns, the bar is a bit higher. Celebrities speaking on Capitol Hill need a competent understanding of the facts and a spotless reputation.

"Rule number one is gravitas over sizzle," says Pete Snyder, CEO of New Media Strategies. "When you're doing a regular advertising campaign, you're going to take the cute factor and any kind of sizzle over the substance of the person, but it's the exact opposite [in] public affairs campaigns."

Celebrities can also draw negative attention if they fail to disclose unfortunate occurrences that become public. With that in mind, it's increasingly important for agencies to look out for negative stories, as well as conflicting statements made about an issue in previous years, says Brenda Foster, VP for account services at Van-guard Communications.

"We do a lot of vetting beforehand. [For instance,] I pair the celebrity name with 'arrest'... on my Google searches," she says. "All you can do is take a look at the situation, then talk to that [celebrity's] publicist, and decide if that relates to you. If you're an environmental organization and someone just dumped something in the river behind [their] house, then you probably don't want to... have them as your speaker."

It's also necessary for communications pros to check a celebrity's interaction with fans on the Web, as well blog entries or other comments he or she has made about the issue they will be endorsing. For instance, proponents of raising money to help aid the issues in Africa would check a prospective spokesperson's online writings on subjects like the Darfur genocide before enlisting them.

"Given social media nowadays, a lot of people are kicking the tires and seeing if celebrities have written anything and blogged about these subjects, and if so, what the response has been," Snyder says.

Although celebrities' schedules tend to be filled early, spokespeople benefit from media training, such as preparatory press conferences or committee appearances.

"I think you can't do enough elite-engagement training, as well as media training," says Derek LaVallee, Waggener Edstrom VP of US public affairs. "These people aren't used to going in and talking [for] 15 minutes, advocating for a position; they're used to talking about themselves."

A politically active celebrity can alienate a group of politicians before they sit down for Congressional testimony or take the first question at a press conference. Therefore, effective spokespeople are often not opinionated, he says.

"They come with baggage, either personal or political. So if you bring in someone like Tim Rob-bins to shore up your base on the Democratic side - if that's your goal, that's fine - know that you're going to be inherently turning off the other side... and you're not going to get much traction with independents," he says. "On the other hand, you can bring in someone who is not branded as being partisan. That's a huge splash and gets attention without the associated baggage."

Key points:

  • Celebrities that will work hard to learn the facts are more valuable than simply the most popular star
  • It's important to vet spokespeople for past statements and unfortunate incidents
  • Outspoken celebrities are often bad spokespeople because they can alienate a certain demographic

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in