Endorsements used with care

In this special report, Strategy looks at the subject of celebrity endorsements from a public relations perspective.As part of a series of Strategy Challenges, we asked several pr experts to prepare an action plan in response to a hypothetical case study...

In this special report, Strategy looks at the subject of celebrity endorsements from a public relations perspective.

As part of a series of Strategy Challenges, we asked several pr experts to prepare an action plan in response to a hypothetical case study in which a celebrity endorser is placed under a cloud of suspicion. The brief, outlining the crisis, appears on page 17. Seven action plans follow.

In an overview, which appears on this page, we asked public relations and event marketing strategists what advice they would offer marketers who were thinking of using celebrity endorsers.

While the arguments in favor of celebrity endorsements remain cogent, it appears marketers have become more cautious about using celebrities to endorse products, a number of public relations and event marketing strategists say.

Michael Campbell, president of Toronto-based public relations agency Marshall Fenn, says the use of celebrities as endorsers, while a powerful persuader, has been on the decline for several years.

Common tactic

‘It is still a common tactic, but it is not used nearly as frequently as it was, and when it is used, it is used with much more discretion and care than ever before,’ Campbell says.

He attributes the move away from celebrity endorsements to several factors, including the fact that a company’s image can be damaged if its all-too-human endorser is revealed to be less than perfect.

‘You are taking a corporate or product image, that may have taken years to establish, and you are placing it in the hands of a single person who has the ability to do great damage to that image, virtually in a moment,’ says Campbell, citing the case of track and field athlete Ben Johnson.

Johnson’s value as an endorser was quickly eroded when he was stripped of his gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul for using performance-enhancing steroids.

Campbell says even when a celebrity remains above reproach, there is always the risk he or she will lose their appeal.

‘We all know of dozens and dozens of celebrities who had their moment in the sun,’ he says.

Fleeting fame

‘I mean, has anyone heard of Bo Derek in a long time? You could actually, in the long term or the medium term, hurt the image of a product by associating it with a celebrity who has a brief moment of high profile exposure.’

As well, Campbell says contemporary consumers are less gullible when it comes to the relationship between celebrities and the corporations or products they are endorsing.

‘You have an increasingly educated, increasingly cynical consumer who may look at someone who is endorsing a product and say, ‘This person is being paid millions to endorse this product and that does not necessarily suggest it is a terrific product,’ ‘ he says.

‘I think there are fewer celebrities who are truly trusted in terms of their endorsement of a product. Most are seen simply as faces and images for hire.’

Jeff Domansky, public relations director at Vancouver-based advertising agency Scali McCabe Sloves, agrees.

‘[Consumers] are more familiar that somebody can pitch a product and not necessarily believe in it  that they are being paid to pitch the product,’ Domansky says.

‘Ten years ago, the average consumer would not have been as aware of that situation, they would have trusted the relationship more,’ he says.

As a result, Domansky says more marketers are looking for strategic partnerships, in which a hamburger and a soft drink might be linked, for example, as opposed to an endorsement from an individual.

Paul Shugart, senior vice-president, account director at Toronto-based event marketing firm Christopher Lang & Associates, disagrees the frequency with which celebrities are being used is declining.

More effort

But Shugart says there is far more effort going into the selection of spokespersons than ever before, in part due to the risks involved.

‘In many respects, you are buying them as a free-spirited individual who you are hoping will well represent your product or service,’ he says.

‘But it’s unlike a typical advertising production situation, where you can very much control every move and every word.

‘You are very much relying on them in the open public to do as you would like to see them do in terms of representing the product or corporation.’

Whether the use of celebrities is declining or holding its own, everyone interviewed agrees the decision to use a celebrity must be carefully considered.

‘The first issue has to be a strategic one, really determining whether or not a celebrity is necessary, because it comes with inherent risks,’ Campbell says.

‘Often, using a celebrity is the easiest strategy, but is it the best one?’ he asks.

David Eisenstadt, partner at The Communications Group, a public relations agency in Toronto, says the first question he would ask a client who said he was interested in using a celebrity is ‘Why?’

Eisenstadt says, many times, corporate sponsorships are made on the basis of a whim, for example, the chief executive officer who decides, ‘Gee, I’ve been a curler all my life. I think we should get into curling sponsorships.’

He says a decision ‘gets rammed through with the company’s executive committee, and before you know it, an organization has committed its positioning to a sponsorship that may make no sense at all.’

Paul Dulmage, senior vice-president of the special events division at Toronto-based public relations agency Edelman Houston, agrees the decision to use a celebrity is often ill-conceived.

‘I don’t know that there’s a lot of thought put into these things sometimes,’ Dulmage says.

‘Marketers don’t generally go looking for these kinds of things,’ he says. ‘They are called upon by the agents of the various personalities who say, ‘I represent xyz and he’d be great for your company’.

‘If they happen to hit the right person, often the guy will be a big baseball fan or hockey fan, and that’s the edge they need.’

Examine reasons

Shugart recommends marketers look carefully at why they are getting involved with a particular celebrity to ensure the fit is an excellent one and consider what precautions they might take to minimize the risks.

‘It all comes down to doing your homework ahead of time, selecting the individual based on your knowledge of their lifestyle and personality,’ he says.

‘If you happen to be selling a product or a company name that must remain above all hint of reproach, then you’ve got to do your utmost to ensure individuals you link your name to are unlikely to get themselves into trouble.’

And how does Shugart determine just who is unlikely to get into trouble?

‘Most of it is by way of on-going experience and tracking of their past performance,’ he says.

‘It’s based on going to someone who knows the particular industry that person is from. Getting some advice as to the likelihood of them properly representing your company name.

‘We are constantly approached by agents on behalf of their clients, so we’ve got a good idea of who’s available, what those individuals are like in terms of their public persona, their willingness to do public appearances, their effectiveness on screen in terms of television productions, how well they can speak at luncheons and conferences and so on.’

‘We’re not about to get into undercover work to try and follow their every move. We go on our experience, in terms of what we’ve seen, heard and read over time.’

Independent view

Dulmage recommends the decision to use a celebrity be examined by an independent third party, such as a public relations agency which is involved in sports or event marketing.

‘They can take a dispassionate view of these kinds of things, knowing their own client, and having contacts in the sports and entertainment field, to find out more about them before you actually get into it,’ he says.

‘It’s almost like private detective work, although most of it is on the public record. But you have to find out whether someone meets their commitments, what their lifestyle is, whether they are reliable or not.’

Eisenstadt says marketers who are serious about engaging a celebrity should not overlook less traditional sources of information.

‘I would talk to people in the news media, who might cover a particular area of interest, be it arts, theatre or sports,’ he says.

Honest opinion

‘In my experience, and I’ve been in the business 26 years, one gets a pretty honest opinion.’

Campbell says once a marketer has determined the right person for the job, the next question is deciding how he or she should be used.

‘If a decision is made that a celebrity should be used, and there are times when a celebrity endorsement is a valid route to go, then I think first of all you want to look at how that celebrity is deployed, so you are not placing too much of your credibility or reputation in their hands,’ he says.

‘So, if something does go wrong, the amount of damage is minimized.’

Patrick Gossage, president of Toronto-based public relations firm Media Profile, says the risks associated with hiring a celebrity are reduced if they are used for classic public relations chores, rather than to directly endorse a product.

‘It’s better if athletes and others who don’t know about a product talk about what they know about, and just give you a bit of a halo effect,’ says Gossage, who offers as an example his client, Unitel Communications, and its association with rower Silken Laumann.

‘I have always felt that connecting her with a particular telecommunications product and making it appear that she knows a lot about that product was not appropriate,’ he says.

Motivation

‘What Silken Laumann knows about is motivation and competition and the competitive spirit and that is what she has brought to her association with Unitel.’

Just as important as how a celebrity is used, is how the individual is managed in his or her contract.

According to Shugart, it is standard procedure to include a clause releasing both parties from the contract should the celebrity not live up to his or her responsibilities, or become involved in a situation that could cause embarrassment to the company.

Spelling out rules

He says what has changed is the fact that marketers are now spelling out the rules and regulations of expected behavior and asking for guarantees.

‘To a large extent, the power of influence, in terms of the negotiations between athletes and corporations, has shifted over the past couple of years to where the corporate sponsor is in a more powerful position than ever before to dictate terms and conditions under which a spokesperson can contract with them,’ Shugart says.

Once the front end has been taken care of, the company should have a crisis plan to quickly and thoroughly extricate itself, say the experts, should the relationship go sour.

‘What so often happens is organizations are not prepared for a crisis,’ Campbell says. ‘They procrastinate, which is the worst thing to do.

‘If a celebrity has done something which contradicts the values of the corporation, they need to have a plan, whereby they are ready to quickly take action,’ he says.

‘And, in many cases, disassociate themselves publicly and strongly from that celebrity. It’s when they waffle and vacillate that the real damage can be done.’