Famous faces: how to work with celebrities

Quite often clients come to us and ask us to find them a celebrity to work with. Our first question is always – why?

Critical thinking is imperative at the outset of this kind of campaign, there are too many weak celebrity-led campaigns out there. There is no doubt that a bit of celebrity gloss can add to a public relations campaign, not least because it can hook media interest. But many campaigns are also strong enough to stand on their own merits and that simply do not gain added value from a sprinkling of stardust, others would be positively harmed by the forcible insertion of a well-known face.

The value of celebrities in PR has always been recognised in healthcare PR. There have been notable occasions when a public health message has been boosted by celebrity involvement. When Jade Goody’s revelation that she was living with cervical cancer there was a remarkable upsurge of young women seeking out smear tests. A similar effect on breast cancer screening programmes occurred when Kylie Minogue talked publicly about her breast cancer diagnosis. Leaving to one side critiques about the overall benefit of the screening programmes involved, the reputation for celebrity sway in health matters was cemented.

Arguably, things have changed a little even since then. Back in the day, celebrities were a distant breed who you were lucky to catch a glimpse of now and then on TV. Nowadays they are a bit more accessible, we have more intimate relationships with our celebs in the age of social media. They are no longer untouchable gods but people you can get a retweet from if you try hard enough. So do they still have the same sway? Well yes, if you do it right.

Some celebrities are truly passionate about a cause, and they may give their time for free. In healthcare communications this is usually for disease awareness campaigns or charity programmes. If somebody has lived with a disease, or has had a loved one affected, then they often want to ‘give back’. The authenticity that they bring as a result will be compelling.

But many celebs (even quite a lot of those with an established interest) come with a chunky price tag. Businesses, charities and even the NHS have previously come under fire for celebrity endorsements. Partly because of the rise of the influencer marketing with all its associated complications and blurred boundaries, all relationships of this kind are under scrutiny. It is a myth that all publicity is good publicity, so always think about how your spending decisions will look to others.

If you are comfortable that your celebrity partnership will add value to your campaign, but there is no obvious go-to individual, what then? How do you find the right person to work with?

  1. Look for somebody who suits the demographic you are trying to reach. But don’t be afraid to think out of the box. Recently, we have worked with actors who play a well known character, and it is the character that links to the topic or has the right demographic fan base. It’s a neat trick, and with a proper narrative, it’s a strong connection.
  2. Do your due diligence. Make sure you are not shooting yourselves in the foot by hiring somebody who has previously said something controversial or that contradicts your message. It’s also worth checking what they have coming up in their diary. Obviously if they have a book to be launched or a new TV series, that extra publicity could work for you, but if they are the ‘face’ of a new range of crisps and you are working in obesity – you might need to think again.
  3. Look for somebody who responds to your initial brief and who brings ideas of their own. This can be easy to miss when you have to do all your initial liaison through agents. But if you listen to the agent carefully and ask the right questions, you can generally decode the genuine response from there. The dream scenario is when the celebrity comes back with their own flourishes on your initial idea. Then you know you have somebody who is keen and who can think for themselves.
  4. Don’t just count social media followers. We are going against the grain here, there’s a lot of people who will tell you it’s all about social media following. That’s all very well in influencer marketing, but celebrity campaign partnership is a different ball game. In a couple of recent campaigns we have turned down the chance to work with the celeb with the higher social following. Sometimes it is simple arithmetic, they might have more followers but be offering to do less with them, or have a bigger but less engaged social fan base. There are other reasons too of course, so we would urge against being blinded by numbers.

Got the right, motivated, relatable celeb behind your campaign? Then it’s time to box clever. Don’t rely on their mere presence to deliver results. Make sure they have a clearly defined role and whatever you do don’t just have a meet and greet. That might be fine if you’re in the nightclub business, but a traditional personal appearance is lazy thinking and is next to meaningless in healthcare communications. Apart from anything else it is a shocking waste. Ideally you want your celebrity embedded and visible in the creative idea at the heart of your campaign. Craft their role and narrative with as much care and attention as you craft the role and narrative of any other campaign participant, famous or not, they are only there as one of the building blocks of your story.

Get all the thinking right and then execute it well and you may be on to a winner. But it takes work. Stardust isn’t born. It’s made.