Organizations that overemphasize celebrity founders risk their reputations

The world market has become a place where the power of an individual celebrity brand can overpower the institution meant to benefit from that brand.

The world market has become a place where the power of an individual celebrity brand can overpower the very institution meant to benefit from that brand. Nowhere is it truer than in NGOs built on the profile of celebrity founders. And no modern story points to those risks more than the news about Lance Armstrong.

The challenges of founder-led organizations are historic and predictable. When does an organization outgrow its founder?  What role should the founder play in a mature organization? And how do you plan for succession? But in the case of celebrity founders, the biggest issue is what to do when the risk of the celebrity overshadows his or her value to the cause. Celebrities come to causes already famous and in other cases become famous because of their cause-related work; but either way, a huge public profile centered on one individual is a liability that must be accounted for in the long-term communications plan of a successful organization.

The fallout from the Komen Foundation and now Livestrong has analysts calling for better crisis preparation. Professional communicators cite the need for a more proactive approach to addressing wrongdoing and taking ownership of mistakes. That's all well and good, but what was happening inside these organizations before the crisis hit? Where was the balance check on the value of the organization's brand vs. the value of the celebrity founder's brand? The new era of celebrity founders requires a new way of managing risk.

Three critical strategies will help minimize the pain of a fallen star:

1) Make sure the product is the star – The work of any organization should be the headline of every story, on display in any event, and focus of every story told. A celebrity founder is a great door opener, but he or she should never be the product.

2) Build your story on the future – Founders are critical to any narrative, but make sure your story doesn't get stuck in the past resting on the laurels of a celebrity founder. Focus your communications strategy on what's in store for your organization, not just on where it's been.

3) Share the love – Have a plan to share the celebrity's brand power with other members of the leadership team. Early in the development of an organization, give the founder's imprimatur to other senior staff and board members - and do it publicly.

Ready acknowledgment that the great value of a celebrity founder comes with liability makes an organization stronger and better able to navigate the dark days of a crisis.

Catherine “Kiki” McLean is senior partner, global head of public affairs, and managing director of Porter Novelli Public Services.

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