The recent Subway controversy with spokesperson Jared Fogle has once again brought unwanted attention to a large corporation. The lesson is: although there are positive aspects about working with celebrities, businesses must be prepared for anything if you decide to go down this path.
Working with celebrities and well-known figures can draw attention to a charity or business. Celebrities such as Betty White (Morris Animal Foundation), Danny Thomas (St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital) and Christina Aguilera (World Hunger Relief), have adopted causes and have been effective spokespeople as well as superb brand ambassadors.
Over the years we have seen celebrities endorse products and pitch them to us on television and in most other forms of advertising. Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy!, currently promotes reverse mortgages. In past ad campaigns, Wilford Brimley was the spokesperson for diabetes supplies and Sally Struthers implored viewers to “save the children.”
On the local level small businesses work with celebrities too; most often they are former sports stars or entertainers. These “local” celebrities are less expensive and can be very effective in driving attention and awareness of a new brand, local business or not-for-profit. When acting as spokespeople for a temporary campaign or long-term effort these local celebrities can become synonymous with the brand or not-for-profit. The results can be very positive, but pay heed to the current headlines with Jared Fogle and Subway – it is getting very ugly.
Good pitch men and women are spokespeople and celebrities who know how to articulate a message. They can do this in person, as part of an ad campaign and potentially when interviewed by the media. A savvy spokesperson will make sure that they stay on message and get their pitch or promotion out when being interviewed. This is not as easy as you might think. Even when the popularity of a celebrity is on the decline, they will get the attention of interviewers who will typically ask questions related to what the person is best known. This is fair game of course, but it cannot be the only topic for an entire interview. Likewise, the interview cannot be a 100-percent pitch or commercial. An astute spokesperson will balance both and never lose the opportunity for the plug.
Those who fail to use the opportunity to make the pitch fall into the “bad” category. They have neglected to present the brand message. The company or business that hired and paid the celebrity will not get the attention or PR it needed and expected. Certainly, long-term, experienced spokespeople rarely have this problem; they get to know the businesses and management they work with and are practiced at what they do. William Shatner and Kelly Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory) with Priceline.com are both excellent examples.
The Jared/Subway controversy, just like ones involving Tiger Woods (Nike, Gatorade, Gillette, General Motors) and Lance Armstrong (Live Strong and the United States Postal Service), highlights how celebrity endorsements or relationships with spokespersons can crash and burn. There is always the potential risk for crisis and controversy in associating a brand with an individual, regardless of who they are. When this happens it can truly be ugly, dragging a brand or business through a media controversy for days, months or even years.
Whether you are associated with a not-for-profit or a business, working with big or small name celebrities must be examined and monitored closely. Be leery of putting too much of the brand’s reputation in the hands of a spokesperson and always have a “crisis” plan should a controversy arise. Weigh the value of the good coverage that you can potentially receive against the bad and hopefully, not the ugly.