Global Development Institute Blog

By Daniel Brockington

Celebrity is a normal part of development business these days. While we can all point to famous development advocates, I suspect that most of us do not know the extent to which development NGOs in Britain, and indeed the whole NGO sector, has transformed itself as part of an effort to work more effectively, and successfully with celebrity advocates. This blog describes this transformation and some of the tensions it has produced.

Most major development NGOs now have full time celebrity liaison officers who meet regularly in London in monthly forums, and have space on their websites dedicated to celebrity ambassadors, and advice to other charities. There are dedicated websites, blogs, and sections in papers concentrating on celebrity advocacy. In Hollywood, major talent agencies have full time members of staff who manage the charitable interests of their clients. Celebrity advocacy, and celebrity charity more generally, is a niche element of the celebrity industries, building celebrity brand, and the brands of the causes and companies associated with them.

It is particularly surprising how quickly this systematic organisation of celebrity advocacy has happened. Celebrity advocacy for worthy causes overseas has its iconic moments (Band Aid in 1984, Live Aid in 1985, and Princess Diana walking through cleared minefields in 1997) but the professional organisation of celebrity-charity has emerged strongly since the millennium. In order to understand the celebrity advocacy phenomenon, I interviewed just over 120 people: celebrity liaison officers, journalists, media professionals, and agents and publicists in the celebrity industries.

It is clear from these interviews that the celebrity industries themselves are not as enthusiastic about these relationships as the NGO community would like them to be. Celebrity ambassadors are, almost always, not paid for their work for NGOs. And for that reason charities’ many requests are not always welcome. Many agents tell their clients to choose three charities, stick with them, and do three or four events a year. All the others – and there can be hundreds of requests a week for prominent clients – can simply be ignored. The better liaison officers, who have established good associations with celebrities, will also seek to establish enduring professional relationships with the agents, for the agents are likely to have a much longer professional life than any individual celebrity. Nonetheless, it is also plain that even celebrities most committed to their charities are subject to the whims of their trade. Lucrative commercial contracts may pop up at inconvenient moments that will make it impossible to honour other commitments. That is part of the territory.

It is against this background that celebrity liaison officers have to try to build enduring relationships with celebrity patrons – because enduring relationships will appear more authentic in the press, and are more likely to be fruitful for their organisation. For development organisations, the classic, and most rewarding, means of doing so was the field trip, which could be life-changing for the celebrities involved. But these are rare and expensive, and in their absence other means have to be found of deepening celebrity commitment and associations. Curiously, this can mean organising events for the celebrity to attend, but where the purpose of the event is to deepen the relationship with them. One of the officers spoke of ‘creat(ing) situations where talent can come learn about something’; another was ‘working to invent’ domestic events as a way of deepening relationships until the opportunity came along for a field trip.

In constructing these events liaison officers have to deal with a continual, annoying distraction: misconceptions on the part of their colleagues as to how celebrity can be used. These colleagues often have little understanding of the time constraints celebrities face, or their suitability or aptitude for particular tasks. Or the tasks are simply ill-thought through, with the celebrity element added in the mistaken belief that this will make a bad task ‘work’. Interviewees from the celebrity industries bemoaned the fact that many of the requests that charities proposed were simply rather boring. Ironically, a busy celebrity liaison officer will spend much time advising colleagues in the NGO not to work with celebrity. As one complained, it’s ‘maddening… half of my job, half of my week, is about managing the expectations of my colleagues’.

It quickly becomes apparent when talking to celebrity liaison officers that the rise of celebrity in the NGO movement is, at least in part, driven by corporate sponsors’ enthusiasm for celebrity ambassadors, and that this can produce particular tensions. Corporate sponsors like associations with celebrity because they offer (free) favourable publicity for their products, helping to boost their brand through links and associations with the charities’ ambassadors. Corporates can in fact make life hard for the liaison officers – for what they would like, ideally, is free celebrity endorsement of their products, which runs counter to the business model of celebrity and the goals of their agents.

All this matters because much hope is invested in the power of celebrity to raise awareness and support for development causes for particular development organisations. If celebrity advocacy is to realise these hopes, if it is to be used effectively, then we need to better understand the pressures under which it is produced. Part of the purpose of this series of blogs, and my wider research on the topic, is to facilitate that understanding. The full paper on which this installment is based provides much more detail and substance to the picture I have merely sketched here.

It matters too because one of the continual questions surrounding celebrity advocacy is whether particularly famous individuals ‘really’ care for the causes that they support or if they are just doing it for the publicity, or even payment. I find it an odd question even to ask. All of us have a mixture of motives in supporting good causes. Why should celebrities be any different? The very question elevates the celebrity to some sort of superior being who might be able to act out of pure altruism. Rather, it is by examining the structure and organisation of celebrity advocacy that we can better understand what ‘really’ causes celebrity advocacy to occur. Doing so, ironically, provides a much better setting in which to understand the role of individual motivation.

But the construction of celebrity advocacy is only part of the story. We also need to understand how it is consumed, and how that consumption varies in different audiences. We will begin that in the second blog which looks at responses to celebrity advocacy among the British public.

Links and further information
This blog summarises a newly published paper which is available on an open access license from this site. That paper, and others from this research are available on this page, and more about the research project behind it is available here.

This is the first in a series of three blogs which explores different aspects of celebrity advocacy. The work was funded by the ESRC (RES 070-27-0035).