red carpet paparazziCelebrities, superstars and pop culture icons. Whatever we call them, they are the big shots that make headlines and whose names we know even when we’ve only seen them on TV. And as Jodi Foster’s recent “coming out” at the Golden Globe Awards proves, they have tremendous power to bring issues into the public sphere and directly impact the way they are talked about.

So let’s say that while drinking coffee one morning, you hear on the radio that a wildly popular singer just sold out two nights at your local arena. You feel certain that if you could just reach her, that she – and her 20 million Twitter followers – would surely support your cause. Imagine you could actually reach the celebrity without being arrested for stalking: would it be worth it? Would an association with this celebrity spread the good word about your work and advance your mission, or would it be a colossal waste of time and resources?

Let’s look at the type of issues to think through as you consider a celestial alignment of the (pop) stars.

Sleuthing 101

First thing on the list: do your homework and make sure the celebrity is credible. Even if the celeb comes to you and offers help, do some sleuthing and find out as much as you can about what’s going on behind the scenes.

A terrific example of this comes to us from the 2004 presidential campaign, when Paris Hilton joined in the chorus of celebrity voices vigorously promoting get-out-the-vote. Unfortunately, it was later discovered that not only had Paris neglected to vote in past elections…she was not even registered!

You and your organization have worked hard to gain respect and credibility. Make sure that the celebrity you are targeting has done the same.

Cue the Applause

While it may seem obvious that you are trying to reach the celebrity, that’s not really accurate. What you are after is their audience. Think of the celebrity as a microphone, aimed directly at the crowd. Be clear about whom you are trying to reach and make sure that microphone is reaching your audience.

For example, say you are knee-deep in a campaign whose goal is to educate women over 65 about the importance of bone density screenings. If that’s the case, then Eminem would probably not be your best messenger.

Here’s another example. A friend who works for a small nonprofit knows an internationally recognized tech guru. He very graciously offered to help, and my friend saw his 3 million Twitter followers as a potential fundraising goldmine. She asked my opinion, and after just a few clicks, I noticed that a majority of his followers were located outside the United States. So even if he did tweet about her latest fundraising campaign, it’s not likely the audience would be moved to action.

I suggested that a better outlet for his kind offer was to ask his expertise with her organization’s technology plan. His level of systems experience was unparalleled, and the organization’s need in that area was great. True, it was not as glamorous as seeing your name in tweets, but it was more effective use of his talents and generosity.

Saying “I Do”

This leads to the next item on our checklist: determine the kind of relationship you’re after and how it fits into your organization’s narrative. Are you looking for a long-term commitment to your cause, or just to raise some extra funds at your annual dinner? Soliciting an autographed poster for a silent auction is a very different type of connection than asking someone to be a campaign spokesperson or sit on an advisory board.

Determine what you are asking and what story the association would tell. Get clear on that, and you’ll have part of the puzzle figured out.

Follow the Leader(s)

In June 1986, Amnesty International launched A Conspiracy of Hope tour that featured such renowned performers as Peter Gabriel, U2 and The Police. For more than twenty years, Amnesty had worked to free prisoners of conscience through letter writing campaigns, and the goal for this tour was to gather enough signatures to secure the release of the six prisoners adopted by the tour. At each stop, Amnesty volunteers distributed postcards addressed to government officials with the authority to release the prisoners. The campaign – called Write. Get One Free – was promoted onstage by the performers.

After just six concerts and a month of touring, two of the six prisoners were released, and tens of thousands of postcards delivered to governmental authorities.

The Conspiracy of Hope tour is a terrific example of a successful pop star alignment. As you consider your celebrity connection, look for examples that integrate the appropriate criteria into the strategy. Be inspired by others who have led the way!

Stay tuned to the LightBox blog for tips on how make the outreach once you’ve decided a connection is a good idea.

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Photo courtesy of OnAir Blogger

claudette silver headshotClaudette Silver is a LightBox collaborator and wants to know your thoughts on connecting celebrities with campaigns.