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George Clooney: An Advocacy Masterclass?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

It is all too easy to be cynical about celebrities backing causes. You wonder: are they serious or is all this for show? Did the public relations people ask him or her to do it to sell more tickets or help recover from a scandal? And things have happened around celebrities championing all manner of causes that fuel the cynicism. A story in a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine covers the phenomenon very well: ‘Looking Good: The new boom in celebrity philanthropy’ by John Colapinto (March 26, 2012, page 56). In it you will find fascinating stories about what different celebrities have been up to and how things are turning out. This summing up attributed to Ken Berger of Charity Navigator, a watchdog group, says it all:

Stars raise awareness, but with heightened visibility come the problems endemic to fame –scandals, P.R.-mongering, wavering commitment, and what Berger calls “the cluelessness factor” – all of which can undermine support for a cause.

There are celebrities who insist on being treated like royalty, to such an extent, in fact, that most of the money they help to raise is spent on them and their hangers-on.

But I must say that I have been impressed with George Clooney and the work he has been doing on Darfur and South Sudan for many a year now. Each time I have watched him on Charlie Rose Show or on Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square, he has appeared knowledgeable, concerned, focused, and committed to the struggle for the long run.

There is a segment from his last appearance on Charlie Rose Show, along with one of this partners, John Prendergast (on March 15, 2012), that I want to bring to your attention because it struck me for a different reason: his surprisingly subtle reflections on the techniques of advocacy. The entire segment is worth watching, especially his analysis of why you need stamina when your advocacy is about a problem that is going to take a long time to fix. Then, in the exchange below, he talks about why it is crucial to understand news cycles if you are going to be an effective advocate:

George Clooney and John Prendergast on Sudan
(Clooney on Arab Spring starts at 28:25)

Charlie Rose: Here is one lesson that comes out of this, it seems to me, is that if you’re going to bring whatever advantage there is to celebrity, and it’s significant, you gotta pick your spots.  Is that the lesson here for you in Sudan?

George Clooney:  I think-I think- that if I have a talent at this-and John will maybe disagree or agree, I’m not sure but-my version of this is understanding news cycles pretty well.  And understanding that, you know, after the referendum, for instance, and you know there were a lot of things going on afterwards, but there was also an Arab Spring, and I said we have to lay low now, we have to let the Arab Spring do its thing.  You have to pick and find your place, where you can then find a news cycle…now there is Syria and Afghanistan just heated up again… but there’s still, there’s a place now…there is air for us to be able to talk about something very important and brewing and happening. But, its usually about, you know, you can’t have a constant drip of misery.  There is donor fatigue, there is misery fatigue… you have to do hard, quick, condensed hits of it to get people aware, to have them understand what’s going on and then to give them room.

Charlie Rose: You gotta know things to make a difference. 

A clueless celebrity? I don’t think so.

Photo Credit: Flickr user nicogenin

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