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American Idols, Kardashian and Your Brand; What PR Must Know about Harnessing the Power of Celebrity

Jordan McAuley
Roxanna Guilford-Blake’s exclusive interview this week: Jordan McAuley, Founder,; Author; Celebrity Leverage.

Tonight’s season finale of “American Idol offers an excellent opportunity to consider how celebrity culture has changed over the years—and what that means to those seeking publicity, earned or otherwise. With so many newly minted celebrities emerging from reality TV, the question of how to leverage celebrity can be a bit daunting. Should you even try?

Jordan McAuley says yes. In an increasingly depersonalized world, celebrities still offer an emotional connection with the consumer, he argues. Here, he shares some of his insights about leveraging celebrity, including why human frailty is good (think Boniva), why celebrities are our friends—and why your favorite star may not be the best one for your client or your brand endorsement:

Why is celebrity so powerful?

Celebrity is powerful because our culture is obsessed with celebrities. Celebrities dominate the covers of magazines, they dominate the news and now they are dominating social networking sites like Twitter. In the past, celebrities endorsed products by talking about them in commercials and infomercials. Today, we are seeing a lot more integration, like Kim Kardashian Tweeting about products, Modern Family doing an entire television episode on the iPad right before it came out and a boom in product integration/celebrity endorsements on reality shows from “Celebrity Apprentice” to “America’s Next Top Model.” Consumers are skipping commercials with devices like TiVo, so integration is becoming more and more important.

How has the role of the celebrity endorsement/association changed over the years? How does social media fit into this transformation?

Social networking is the ultimate dichotomy. We are connected in more ways than ever before, but we’re also becoming more and more disconnected. People are texting, Facebooking and Tweeting instead of calling. We are losing that human connection, which is what celebrities bring to products. In the past, we looked to friends and family for product and service recommendations. We could hear their voices, see the expressions on their faces and feel a connection because we know, like and trust our friends and family. Emotion is being stripped away from product recommendations, and marketers know that people buy first on emotion.

Celebrities are able to add that emotional connection back to products that in the past we got from friends and family because now we mostly talk to friends and family through texting, email, Facebook, etc.—i.e., no emotion. We also see celebrities more than our friends and family. Oprah comes into our living room every day, which is one of the reasons products fly off shelves when she recommends them. Consumers have enough “stuff.” In today’s world, they are buying connections. Along with emotion connection, celebrities also provide credibility and attention.

Celebrities feel more accessible now. In the past, A-list movie stars were protected. Today, with increasing lack of privacy due to paparazzi, cell phone cameras, blogs, reality TV, etc., we see celebrities’ flaws. As a result, we feel closer to them, as though they were one of us or one of our friends. They are also revealing much more of themselves, like Marie Osmond for Weight Watchers, Sally Field for Boniva and Jamie Lee Curtis for Activia.

How do you decide which celebrity is right for your brand or product?

The celebrity’s image must match your brand’s image. Choosing a celebrity you are a fan of is a big mistake. I had an author who wanted to get Ellen DeGeneres to write the foreword for her book on customer service. Ellen is not known for customer service. I’m sure she would be very good if that was her job, and I’m sure she likes receiving good customer service like everybody else, but that isn’t what she’s known for. She’s also an A-list star who would be a) difficult to get and b) very expensive. Don’t overlook local celebrities, reality TV stars and soap opera stars, news anchors and local DJs who can also help publicize your events, and free celebrities like Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Devil.

Even seemingly stable celebrities get involved in damaging scandals. (Who would have anticipated the messes that Mel Gibson and Tiger Woods made?) Is this just a risk companies have to take?

It’s a very small risk. Those are extreme examples that don’t happen very often. Many companies are now including morals clauses in their contracts, so if a celebrity does act out of line with your brand’s image, there are repercussions for the celebrity. If you are creative, there is usually a way to spin a negative event into a positive one.

Much of the advice in your book seems directed at the small businessperson without a lot of PR savvy. But what are the smart, seasoned PR pros missing when it comes to leveraging celebrity? What should they be doing?

Smart PR pros think about all the different ways they can leverage celebrities. If you’re planning an event, for example, instead of just having the celebrity come, have them Tweet about it. Create a story from the celebrity being at the event and start pitching the media (with photos) immediately after. Get the celebrity to hold up your product for photos. Make it clear that your guests can bring their cameras to the event so they can take pictures for Facebook, create a contest where you have guests Tweet about the event, then choose a random Twitter account that wins a prize. Don’t overlook ways to turn your organization’s founder, owner or even pet into a celebrity, as well.

Also, don’t forget about the celebrity’s gatekeepers. If you’re gifting a product, offer one to the celebrity’s gatekeeper, as well. They will remember you and go out of their way to help you. Many PR pros only focus on the celebrity and forget about the people around them who really have the power to approve something, get it to the celebrity, etc. Treat those people like gold.

How are larger organizations using the power of celebrity wisely?

The Opryland Hotel in Nashville uses celebrity voices for their wake up calls. When was the last time you went home from staying in a hotel and told everyone about your wakeup call? Think about unusual ways you can leverage celebrities, from voice broadcasts (you can often use an impersonator so you don’t have to hire the real celebrity) to viral videos you can put on YouTube and Facebook.

What else should seasoned marketing and PR pros understand about celebrity? What insights can you offer them?

That everybody likes celebrities. It’s not just teens, women or bored housewives. I always love it when men say they don’t care about celebrities, but they are always talking about sports or watching sports. So don’t overlook using athletes and retired athletes. Reality shows take place all across the country now, so you don’t have to be in New York or Los Angeles. Bravo’s “Real Housewivesfranchise, for example, is now filmed in Atlanta, New Jersey, Orange County, Los Angeles, with Washington, DC and Beverly Hills coming soon. MTV has filmed “The Real World” in almost every major city. “Top Chef” uses chefs from all over the country. Contestants from Tyra Banks’ “America’s Next Top Model,” Heidi Klum’s “Project Runway,” Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” etc. can be leveraged, thereby getting you association to Banks, Klum, Trump, etc. without hiring them. They go back to their hometowns once the show is over. Reality stars are immensely popular, and are not as expensive as A-list celebrities. Many will come to events for free if you can promise media exposure. Just look at celebrity magazines like Us Weekly and Star—reality stars have replaced A-list celebrities on the covers.

Have you had feedback from the celebrities themselves? What do they think of what you do?

In all the years I have been running, no celebrity has ever complained. Agents, managers and publicists send us their clients lists. Celebrities are between jobs, are looking for additional income opportunities, don’t have as much money as we think they do. They don’t mind getting free products, lucrative offers, publicity opportunities, etc.

You’ve had this business since 1996, when you were a film student. Other than the financial rewards, why do you do what you do? What excites you about your work?

I love connecting people with celebrities. Many of my clients are nonprofits, who contact celebrities for autographed memorabilia they can auction off at events to raise money for their cause. They
have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, for their causes using celebrities from my database, and that makes me very happy.

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