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Navigating the risks of working with celebrities

How to work with celebrity ambassadors and patrons.

Working with celebrities can offer charities and campaign-oriented organisations many benefits for increased profile, media opportunities and raised income. But it can also be fraught with risk: celebrities can engage in activities that might be disapproved of, that are harmful to others, or downright illegal. 

These risks are not new so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise to any organisation if one of the celebrities you work with ends up in the media for all the wrong reasons. 

Leaving crisis comms planning to the last moment is too late. When emotions are running high, it’s difficult to make sensible decisions. To protect your organisation, plan your response in advance – crisis comms is like an insurance policy for your brand. 

Becky Slack, Agenda co-director, offers some advice for charities and organisations either working with a celebrity or thinking about taking the leap.  

1. Undertake a risk assessment and have statements prepared

  • Make sure you are on the front foot, complete a risk assessment before you engage a celebrity.

  • Include scenario planning, pre-prepared statements based on those scenarios, and a pre-approved plan of action that outlines who needs to do what and when, should the proverbial hit the fan.

  • Continual media and social media monitoring should give you advance warning that something is afoot. How to deal with the different scenarios depends entirely on the case in question, but foreplanned is forearmed.

2. Quickly identify any legal or safety concerns

  • Should you find that one of your celebrities has been accused of something serious and illegal, you should act quickly and decisively.

  • Your priority should be ensuring the safety and security of your people - staff, members, volunteers, beneficiaries, donors - and communicating with them based on what they need to know to maintain their level of trust with you.

  • This communication may be through internal channels - from a phone to a general email - or more public channels - such as publishing a statement on your website and social media channels. Think about what is most appropriate for your audience and who needs to send or sign the message.

  • If an individual has ‘messed up’, your course of action depends on how bad the situation is. Sometimes the mistake can be redeemable and sometimes not. The severity of the ‘mess-up’ will determine the course of action you need to take – and your scenario planning should give you a steer.

3. Check whether your values align before making a decision

  • It may be that the individual hasn’t done anything wrong per se, but certain sections of society don’t like their views, especially on polarising topics such as trans rights, immigration etc, or their associations, such as links to political parties.

  • This is a values-based response and, therefore, you need to assess whether your celebrity’s values are aligned with your own and choose whether to maintain the relationship.

  • The best response and subsequent course of action will depend on the situation but keeping quiet and not using the celebrity for any public activity for a while (with their permission) is probably the safest bet.

4. If you are going to stand by them, be prepared!

  • There may be situations where you feel a celebrity has been unjustly cancelled, and you may wish to support them, in which case you may wish to be more vocal and public in your work with them.

  • If you take this option, be warned that the media/social media attention may turn on you and therefore you need to be fully ready for this with statements and spokespeople for internal and external comms.

5. Think carefully about when to release a statement

The type of media statement you should publish again depends on the situation.

If people have been harmed, their needs should take front and centre of your statement.

If the situation is directly linked to work a celebrity has done for you (such as their behaviour at an event being the cause for the controversy) then you should definitely release a statement as soon as possible – ideally before any media queries so you can stay in control of the message.

6. Do you even need to make a media statement?

  • If the incident involving the celebrity does not have any direct links or relevance to your organisation, there’s no real need to issue a statement in advance of a media request. It may come across as you capitalising on other people’s misery to raise your own profile. This is never a good look.

7. Deciding what to include in the media statement and other information

  • The contents of the media statement again depend on the situation.

  • If the celebrity has been accused of illegal behaviour, it would be inappropriate for you to pass judgement until there’s been an admission or finding of guilt. Keep your statement factual and free from emotion.

  • If the celebrity has said or done something that directly harms your beneficiaries, then it is essential to make a statement. What this statement says depends on what has happened, who was involved, the impact etc.

  • A good rule of thumb is to always express care and concern for those affected, demonstrate control of the situation, and take constructive and prompt action to resolve the issue. In addition, it’s important not to admit to or apologise for anything without running it past a lawyer first.

  • If the links between the celebrity and your organisation are considerable enough to warrant responding to questions from staff, the media or the public, a Q&A document should be prepared and used to ensure that all answers are accurate and consistent.

In a nutshell  

  • Working with celebrities is great for raising profile and money. But sometimes their behaviour can cause damage to your reputation and income. 

  • Plan ahead: what scenarios might arise where you could pre-prepare statements and a crisis ‘to do’ list? 

  • Assess the extent: does the crisis affect your organisation, is it a regrettable comment, poor judgement or something more serious – are there legal or safety implications?  

  • Consider your comms: who needs know and how will you tell them: what’s occurred; how you’re responding; and what’s going to happen next? 

  • Manage the relationship: do your celebrity’s values – as shown by their words and deeds – continue to match your values? Will you ask them to step back for a while or will you cut ties? 

  • Stand by your decision: are you prepared to take the flack and how will you get ahead of the message to keep your audiences on side? 

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