Lights, Camera, Action
Celebrity endorsement can generate huge interest in a charity campaign, but is it worth all the trouble of getting celebrities to take up your cause? Yes, finds David Adams, but building the right relationships is key

Celebrities! Don’tcha just love ‘em? Of course you do! Well, the evidence available suggests you probably do, anyway. Of course, like me, you may well be horrified by celebrity culture, by endless magazines filled with discussion and candid paparazzi photos of actors, pop stars and models of middling talent, along with the ‘celebrities’ who became famous by sleeping with someone famous, or doing something unspeakable on a reality TV show.

You may also be depressed by the fact that so many charity events today need to be ‘star-studded’ or fronted by someone famous to get any degree of press coverage. Surely the cause doesn’t need the involvement of someone who used to be in EastEnders to give it credibility?

But that is the world we live in, and it’s both foolish and a little hypocritical (don’t you find that copy of Hello! in the doctor’s waiting room strangely alluring, after all?) to pretend otherwise. If celebrity endorsement is something that everyone else is doing then perhaps the best thing to do is to make sure your organisation gets as much out of dabbling in the world of celebrity as it can.

After all, you can’t argue with results. “For us, celebrities have made all the difference,” says Suzanne Mainwaring, director of the Noah’s Ark Appeal, which has raised millions of pounds towards the building of the Children’s Hospital for Wales in Cardiff since its launch in 2001. This was thanks in part to celebrity supporters including Ian Botham, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Charlotte Church. “The well-known names who have supported our campaign have brought in enormous media interest, and then that has led to lots of donations. I would say that working with celebrities has been crucial in the fundraising strategy.”

Noah’s Ark Appeal events that have featured celebrity appearances include a fundraising walk by Ian Botham in 2002 that raised £950,000, and concluded with a grand ball at which Catherine Zeta-Jones auctioned the gown she was wearing.

The Appeal has benefited from the fact that, as Mainwaring puts it, “Wales isn’t a very big place”. Many of its famous supporters, such as the singer Max Boyce, footballer Ryan Giggs and rugby players Jonathan Davies and Gareth Edwards, have local connections, while the chairman of the trustees already had personal connections with both Ian Botham and Charlotte Church.

Once initial celebrity support helped the campaign gather momentum and gain a high profile, the Appeal was approached by other famous individuals, such as Shirley Bassey, who chose it as one of two Welsh charities she wanted to support as part of a celebration of her 50th year in show business.

There’s no doubt that even endorsements by less celebrated individuals can help draw press coverage to an event or campaign launch. “We will use celebrities if we think it will make something more newsworthy for magazines that our supporters might be reading,” says Ash Anand, PR manager at the pregnancy health charity Tommy’s, which devotes lots of time to research identifying which individuals will be best suited to a particular campaign.

The actor Lucy Pargeter, from TV soap Emmerdale, is the face of this year’s ‘Splashathon’, while this July was also the first Pregnancy Health Month, an awareness campaign which was fronted by the actor Angela Griffith, models Nancy Sorrell and Penny Lancaster, and Dr Linda Papadopoulos (from ITV’s This Morning). The idea was that between them these individuals appeal to different sections of the media, who in turn address different groups of potential supporters.


There are still plenty of charities yet to start working extensively with famous supporters, but many organisations are now dedicating increasing amounts of resources to improving the way they exploit celebrity connections. “We have always recognised the value of focused and professionally managed celebrity support,” says Mungo Denison, celebrity liaison manager at the Children’s Society. “Managed effectively, it allows us to make a real noise about our work. Association with the right celebrity can offer access to new media and a platform from which to reach new audiences.”

He agrees there can be pitfalls, such as the dangers of “chasing after the ‘15 minute-ers’ that spill out of the endless cycle of reality TV shows, [seeking] any opportunity to self-promote”, because this can leave a campaign hijacked or cheapened. “There is huge potential for charities if they can find the right fit with prominent, public figures,” Denison continues. “But it is important to recognise that the more genuine and passionate the support from a celebrity the greater their impact will be.”

This would appear to be another good reason for trying to find some way of forging a genuine relationship with the celebrity you want to endorse a cause or event. If there is some kind of personal connection between the organisation and a celebrity then by all means exploit it. Global Angels, founded in 2004 by Molly Bedingfield – who among other things is the mother of pop stars Daniel and Natasha Bedingfield – promotes and stages high profile events to support projects in aid of children and young people worldwide, and has put celebrity involvement at the heart of its fundraising strategy.

Among recent events was a classical music concert held in June in aid of Global Angels’ Step Up campaign and its Feed A Child For A Year programme, headlined by the UK’s most downloaded classical performer Hayley Westenra.

“Artists have a wonderful platform and opportunity to really make an impact,” says Molly Bedingfield, who is also executive director of the charity. “We want to produce events in ways that haven’t been done before, and then also to partner with projects doing something amazing in the lives of children and young people.” These include a variety of projects abroad, from HIV/AIDS to nutrition and education, as well as work in the UK with organisations including Great Ormond Street Hospital.

As Bedingfield points out, the way a celebrity is approached is crucial, partly because of the fact so many charities are now keen to solicit their support. “They’re pressured by people asking them to support good causes every day, and they usually have incredibly hectic work schedules,” she says. “Because of that it feels like a real privilege when they agree to get involved. It means it’s something they’re doing because they want to, rather than because it’s something they feel they should do.”

Of course, it is easy to be cynical about all of this. The one and only Max Clifford warned the Charity Communications Conference earlier this year that many celebrities are eager to work with charities because it will help improve their profile. But, he added, even if the celebrity is not inspired to act through pure altruism, the positive publicity their involvement generates will still be good for the charity.

Making contact
Clifford advises working through an individual’s PR company rather than an agent, because the former understands the importance of good publicity, but the latter is only ever interested in making money.

Ideally, of course, the charity would look for a direct link, bypassing these channels. “When you have to go through a PR company or an agent it’s much harder to develop a relationship,” says the Noah‘s Ark Appeal’s Mainwaring. “I have had direct experience of an agent who was very unhelpful and obstructive, even though the person they represented had agreed to do something for us. We found that, once we were able to bypass that, the person was willing to do everything we’d asked, and that their agent hadn’t even put all our requests to them.”

Mainwaring says experience has taught her that the more famous someone is, the longer the lead-in time you need, and often the more obstacles you have to navigate. But if you can find a way around those obstacles the rewards can make it all worthwhile. “It’s astonishing the impact some of these people can have,” she says. “A year into our existence, when Ian Botham came on board, we became high profile overnight. We were on every radio and TV station in Wales, every day, for nine days.”

So there it is: celebrity culture may be pretty mindless stuff, but there are real practical benefits to be gained from getting just a little bit of that stardust to rub off your organisation. Anyway, isn’t there just a little bit of you that would rather like to work with the rich and famous?


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