Hairy Situations

July 1, 2010       Kate Rogers      

Controversial animal rights group PETA has learned the hard way that celebrity spokespeople can sometimes get attention for all the wrong reasons.

PETA enlisted the help of supermodel Naomi Campbell for its Id Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur campaign during the 1990s. Campbell had her heart in the right place, telling reporters about her involvement with the anti-fur movement; however, she strutted down the runway with a very different message, modeling designers fur creations.

Ethics mean a great deal to us, more than the lip service of some model who didn’t seem to have a clue, said Dan Matthews, vice president of Campaigns for the New York City-based charity. We formally fired her. We’ve branched off a lot, working with actresses and rock stars — people who aren’t such slaves to fashion.

PETA is famous today for not only having the seal of approval from numerous celebrities, from Baywatch babe Pamela Anderson to the Rev. Al Sharpton, but also for its worst dressed celebrities list, which annually targets the biggest animal skin wearing celebs. Some of its targets have even turned around and become advocates, Matthews said, which is a great way to get the public buzzing about PETA’s campaigns.

Some of our choices have been surprising to people, he said. We convinced Martha Stewart to stop wearing fur, and we got her to host our fur expos, showing some of the graphic images that got her to stop wearing it. Our most compelling spokespeople are people who have had a change of heart themselves.

In a celebrity-obsessed world, having endorsements from gossip page regulars garners attention and support, often featuring both parties in a positive light. However with a news-hungry, 24-hour media cycle, bloggers and reporters are often waiting for these very celebrities to slip up. So, is it worth the potential drama to enlist a few famous friends to endorse your mission? Save the Children’s Jane Berliner, director of the charity’s Artist Ambassador Program, says Absolutely.

Its about who needs who more, Berliner said of working with celebrities. Do they need us more because they are going through a career slide, or do we need them more? We try to avoid people who are being advised they need good press. We don’t want people who need this for career management, she said.

Passion and general interest don’t cut it for Berliner, who says she often works with her artist ambassadors to pinpoint a campaign or issue that resonates with a particular celebrity before bringing them on board. Doing so ensures longevity and a more meaningful experience for both sides. Actress Julianne Moore works with U.S. children living in poverty, while actress America Ferrera works on educating young girls in Mali . Both women are artist ambassadors for the charity.

You have to dig a little deeper and find what their internal hot button issue is; so they will get behind and stay behind an issue. Especially in these times, she said. The challenge is keeping them on board, and not having them decide they are interested in something different. Make sure they actually go out and see the work. Witnessing the work we do is an undeniable, irrefutable way of approaching people.

Phoenix, Ariz.-based Make-A-Wish Foundation works with celebrities nonstop in annually granting more than 900 wishes, of which many are I wish to meet requests, according to Lorie Hennessey, director, Celebrity and National Sports for the charity. Hennessey said Make-A-Wish does not pay the celebrities or ask them to sign contracts, but does summarize what is expected of them during wish grants.

We do clearly outline the support we hope they will give as a celebrity wish ambassador, she said. We have a lot of celebrities that are passionate about what we do and want experience in granting wishes. We focus on those who are intimately involved.

Likewise, PETA and Westport, Conn.-based Save the Children do not work on a contract basis with stars, and celebrities are not compensated for their time and work. Celebrities often donate more than just time to the organizations they work with, and also get an experience from giving back that they couldn’t get from any other type of work.

The (celebrities) who are really conscious and are good, solid, whole people, they are also aware of how fortunate their lives are, Berliner said, adding that many artist ambassadors also sponsor individual children through different programs. I believe in my soul that if I have to pressure someone or twist an arm, we are not going to work together. We dont pay them for their passion. A contract is making a promise — ours is a natural and holistic relationship.

Berliner said Save the Children isn’t concerned with its artist ambassadors making a misstep or saying the wrong thing in regard to the organization, because each celebrity is put through a serious vetting process by the charity before they are brought on board, which includes background checks and any possible conflicts of interest.

We wouldn’t really go after someone who is on a reality show, she said. I’m not expecting someone to suddenly be shooting heroin. We look into their backgrounds, we have chats with their publicist. We are really diligent and careful, which is why we don’t have a lot of ambassadors. We don’t feel the need to distance ourselves from someone who is, 98 percent of the time, saying the right things and is on the right page.

Working with famous figures is unpredictable, Hennessey said, so Make-A-Wish instead concerns itself with ensuring its wish children are getting the most out of their experience.

We really take control of what we can, she said. If we have a celebrity go out and talk about us in a magazine or on an interview we prepare them with talking points so they dont say one thing about our mission when its really another way. We do our due diligence and have a Make-A-Wish person there as well, so that if need be they can clarify information about the organization.

Bringing public figures on board also saves organizations advertising money, Berliner said; although she is unsure if such ambassadors actually bring in more money for campaigns.

We save a lot of money for press, and we get better press with an artist involved, she said. The few (celebrities) we work with, they prioritize fundraising in a serious and significant way.

PETA uses celebrities as a way to put the spotlight on serious issues and also save a little cash along the way, Matthews said. The public can sometimes assume a nonprofits budget is larger than it is in reality, when an organization brings a high-profile figure on board.

We are a charity, we don’t have much of an ad budget to speak of, especially considering what we are up against, such as the fur and meat trade, and companies that test on animals, he said. We have a very ugly story to share with people — the way animals suffer on fur farms and factory farms. There’s a lot of stories and cruelties people do not want to hear about and watch its a little sad that people cant wrap their heads around issues on their own, but we didn’t invent the rules; we will just play by them.

Every celebrity has flaws, so charities have to take the good with the bad and weigh the consequences. Animal rights issues are so far reaching, Matthews said, it would be unrealistic to seek out celebrities for campaigns that are completely vegan, for example.

You cant expect everybody to be 100 percent on every issue and come through the door like Ghandi, he said. You take what you can get and be glad if somebody evolves. We don’t live in a purist world, so I think it wouldn’t be effective to work only with purists.

If a celebrity partnership is right, it will be evident for both parties, Berliner said. The right public figure wont give you a headache. NPT

 

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