Some Thoughts on Celebrity Endorsements for PR Campaigns

With our celebrity-obsessed culture, recruiting a celebrity spokesperson is still an effective tactic for many campaigns, particularly tricky topics like healthcare that need more explanation and a personal connection to have any real impact. This mirrors the media’s long-term trend of an increasing focus on lifestyle and “soft” news, which also reflects what’s popular in social media. While using celebrity for healthcare campaigns has been a tactic for pharma (going back to Bob Dole for erectile dysfunction for instance), it’s also a tactic used by the nutritional supplement industry, by insurance companies and by non-profits.

In most cases, a celebrity endorsement can jump start a campaign very quickly and effectively. We’ve all seen the backlash when a company picks a celebrity who isn’t a good fit, i.e., Paula Deen. I worked with Lance Armstrong for many years, who endorsed a pharmaceutical company, an automobile manufacturer, a sports nutritional supplement, sports gear, sunglasses, a light beer and more. But your celebrity’s endorsement is only as good as his or her reputation and just as you do a background check on an employee, you might put the same expert in choosing a spokesperson.

I was working with a pharmaceutical company that almost selected Tonya Harding as a spokesperson for an asthma product, just days before the Nancy Kerrigan incident. Fortunately, they had the foresight to do some research on Tonya and decided not to sign her.  (What actually got her disqualified from the campaign was the fact that she was a smoker, but little did we know what would happen next).

I think it’s essential to pick a spokesperson who has a genuine, sincere interest in the cause. The Silver Anvil Award Winning “Arrest the Risk” campaign by BRG Communications featured Shaun Robinson of Access Hollywood as a spokesperson for a sudden cardiac arrest educational campaign. Not only had her family been touched by the condition, she was close friends with actor Michael Clarke Duncan who died just before the campaign launched, giving it unexpected power and immediacy.

 The American Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy is currently using Kathy Ireland as the spokesperson for their colon cancer screening campaign—someone else who has a passionate interest in preventing colon cancer because as someone at risk herself, and as a mother and a daughter. She’s probably best known as a swimsuit model, but she has a groundswell of goodwill because of her obvious sincerity and passion for the cause.

 Sometimes, the celebrities volunteer themselves. Patricia Richardson (formerly of “The West Wing” and “Home Improvement”) who lives in Connecticut actually walked into the headquarters of NORD (National Organization of Rare Disorders) to volunteer (her father died of a rare disease). She has been a tireless supporter of the organization.

 A celebrity spokesperson doesn’t have to be an actor or an athlete; I’ve successfully used astronauts, former political leaders, and authors, people who have achieved fame in other ways. They can be controversial, but it needs to be relevant to the campaign. For instance, who better to educate people about the dangers of “huffing” inhalants than Allison Fogarty, who was featured in the most watched episode of “Intervention” ever broadcast? Allison is healthy now and A&E supported our production and even ended up featuring our PSA shoot on their show.

 TV shows, networks and movies may be more willing to support a campaign than you would be expect. Often times, celebrities are actually looking for non-profit causes to support. I know an A-list Hollywood actor who was willing to take a $5 million dollar endorsement deal as long as it could be tied into his charitable efforts.

How about fictional celebrities? Marvel Comics Ironman helped the Alliance for Consumer Education on a campaign to educate kids about the importance of washing their hands to prevent the spread of disease. Obviously, we had to get permission from Marvel and Universal Studios, but they were very happy to support the worthy cause and also help cross-promote the DVD launch of Ironman II.

Some spokespeople may be better suited for a scripted PSA campaign than to go on the interview circuit. Many times you can leverage an existing publicity campaign for a new project to support your health education goals.

How do you work with them?

This agreement needs to be contracted carefully. You should lay out everything you would like from the celebrity, but also open a dialogue because they may have their own ideas which invariably I have found are often better than mine (they may know how to leverage their own brand better than you do—and they have other media connections you may not know about).

Don’t rely on a template, try to make specific requests. Be flexible on timing and location. I’m working on one next week that was supposed to be in Miami and the celebrity’s shooting schedule changed and now we’re shooting in Boston. That’s the norm.

I had a pharma shoot with Pierce Brosnan (who donated the money to an ovarian cancer charity) and it was supposed to be in Monte Carlo which I was excited about. (He was shooting a Bond movie at the time). But scheduling changed, at the last minute we had to do the shoot at his Malibu beach house and it worked out well. It turned out Pierce Brosnan had never been to Monte Carlo either, so he was equally disappointed. If we had not been available to do this at the last minute, it would not have happened. We ended up at his house because we needed a quick location and he wanted to work from home for once.

I guess the lesson from this is that you have to be prepared to travel anywhere and be prepared for last minute changes. While the messaging and the script may be very structured, the scheduling is likely to fall apart and you need to be flexible enough to roll with that to get things done.

Some celebrities are available to work pro bono, but most expect some compensation and honestly whatever they are paid is almost always significantly less than what they would get for a comparable day’s work in their true profession. They’re creative people—get creative with how they are compensated. I had one major celebrity do a boating safety campaign in exchange for the boat we featured in the campaign. Later she turned it in and the company was able to re-sell it at greater than market value because she was the previous owner, so it was win-win.

If you approach an agent who has a talent that turns the opportunity down, often times you can ask the agent if they have anyone else that could be a fit. The agent may have a client that has a stronger tie to the cause in question and a greater reason to participate.

It’s also possible to leverage a celebrity on the rise. For instance, I did a PSA at the time the TV show “ER” was debuting—and we pursued Anthony Edwards, who was one of the lead players. I was offered George Clooney, but stuck to my guns for Edwards. At the time Edwards was the bigger star, but when someone tells you someone is on the rise, you should listen!