You know those pictures of Angelina Jolie  hugging a starving child in Chad? Elton John  singing at AIDS fundraisers? Bono being everywhere all over Africa in campaigns against poverty? There is a very good reason why celebrities lend their names and faces to development causes: it works. By the sheer force of their fame they draw attention to issues that would normally not be on our radar screen and they are able to mobilize parts of the population that does not always have access to information about development issues. So all you need to do is put a famous face on your cause and you’re set for success – increased awareness, increased attention, increased funding, and sometimes even behavior change? It’s not quite as easy as this. Picking the right celebrity is important, or the whole thing can backfire. Here are a few dos and don’ts when involving celebrities in a cause.
Pick someone your audience cares about. As with every campaign, it is vitally important that you define your objectives and your audience way in advance of planning any activities. What do you want to achieve, what do you want the celebrity to help you with, and who are you targeting? If you want to raise awareness among young people about children and hunger in developing countries, pick a singer, actor, or sportsperson that is popular with your specific audience. If you want to raise money among a group of fairly well off donors over 30, don’t pick Justin Bieber.
Pick a role model. Some celebrities are role models. Some stand for beliefs and behaviors that you may not want your cause to be associated with. Some don’t really stand for anything. A believable role model will do more for your cause because your audience is willing to learn from their behavior. Your audience should trust your celebrity right from the outset.
Don’t pick your VIP randomly. It’s always a thrill when a famous actor or singer comes visiting, isn’t it? But when you’re working on a specific cause, you should pick a celebrity that has some connection to your cause. If, for instance, the famous singer has no interest in development issues and never performed in that context, your message is unclear. Development communication is not about fun, it’s about promoting results. So always position your VIPs in the context of a cause, give them a backstory why they could be the face of that cause, find connections between the cause and the person’s history or activities. If you tie no cause to a celebrity performance, you are wasting an opportunity.
Check their history. Celebrities tend to be in the news quite often – for scandals, romances, sometimes for actions that are borderline, or fully, criminal. If a celebrity has been convicted for domestic violence, don’t make this famous person the face of your gender campaign. Or any campaign. Even if your cause is about, say, animal protection or disaster relief, you are associating your cause with morally and legally problematic behavior. By picking this celebrity, not only are you justifying his or her past actions, you also risk that your audience will talk more about these infractions than about your cause.
Celebrity support for development causes can make a powerful difference. Celebrities command attention, have the trust of wide parts of the population, and can even have political influence (think George Clooney!). But because they can be so potent, they can also be potently wrong for your campaign. If you don’t pick your celebrities carefully, in the best case you will miss an opportunity. In the worst case you will damage your cause and your reputation considerably.
Picture credit: World Economic Forum 
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