Podcast transcript: Staying out of trouble with celebrity talent

This is a transcript of the Third Sector Podcast episode: Staying out of trouble with celebrity talent

Rory Poulter: Hello and welcome to the Third Sector Podcast. I’m Rory Poulter 

Lucinda Rouse: And I’m Lucinda Rouse. We’re reporters at Third Sector and each week we bring you half an hour of discussion and debate about the important goings on in the charity world. 

In this episode, we’ll be looking into a very public disagreement between two dementia charities. And later we’ll be joined by a talent manager to talk about celebrity ambassadors, from getting them on board to measuring their value and managing the risks when things don’t go quite according to plan. 

And if you’re as out-of-touch with popular culture as I am, then I have to warn you that a lot of names are going to be mentioned that will mean absolutely nothing to you. 

Rory: But joining us to guide us through our first item is our senior news reporter, Emily Harle.

Hi Emily, what have you been looking at? 

Emily Harle: Hi Rory, thank you so much for having me today. 

So this week I’ve been looking into a clash between two major Alzheimer’s charities who have clashed over this new campaign film from Alzheimer’s Research UK starring the voice of Olivia Colman. 

The video aims to raise awareness of the research that Alzheimer’s Research UK is doing and their quest to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Lucinda: And it’s also depicting the reality, isn’t it, of somebody who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s? 

Emily: Yes, so it’s an animated film and it plays on a fairytale concept. And it goes into the reality of memory loss and forgetting who you are. And loss of wit and charm are actually two words that are used within the film as well.

Lucinda: So I think we’ll just play a little bit of this film. 

Olivia Colman voiceover: And so it was that the cruel dragon was no more. And the prince and princess could be together forever, happily ever after. 

Except this wasn’t the happily ever after we all know. For the prince had been struck by an invisible force far more powerful than the dragon. Bit by bit, it robbed him of his charm and wit. Constantly playing cruel tricks. Trapping him inside a world he could no longer comprehend.

Alas, though brave and resilient, the torment of paranoia and confusion completely overwhelmed him.

Lucinda: So that’s just a short excerpt from the two-minute video, and as you said, Emily, it’s playing on the traditional fairytale narrative of being swept off your feet by your knight in shining armour and then living happily ever after, but sadly that is not the case when your knight in shining armour comes down with Alzheimer’s.

Now, I’ve seen on social media there have been some quite strong reactions to this, but the one that really stands out is by another charity. What’s the problem been? 

Emily: So Alzheimer Scotland have put out a public statement. They posted this statement on social media as well. They accused the film of having dated stereotypes and warned that it could potentially cause harm to those with recent diagnoses and those people’s families as well.

And they’ve also said that the film perpetuates a demoralising tone and undermines both charities’ fight to break down stigma associated with the illness. 

Rory: Yeah, it’s difficult because obviously I can see what they’re talking about insofar as it does promote negative stigmas associated with the issue.

But also, was it necessary to go out in a public forum and to discuss that? Would it not have been better for it to be something they talked about charity to charity, without detracting away from some of the messages that are positive in the film and instead making it about a controversy?

Lucinda: I don’t know because then what would they have got out of that dialogue unless Alzheimer’s Research had agreed to take down the film? Which I can’t imagine that they’re going to do because it has received a lot of positive feedback as well.

Rory: Yeah.

Lucinda: And it’s so fundamental to the cause of Alzheimer Scotland. They obviously feel very strongly that it’s marginalising the voices of those with lived experience of dementia and feel that there needs to be a lot more positivity around the fact that a lot of people are living with this condition. 

And I saw some other criticism as well saying that that video was really harmful for people who are living with dementia and maybe sitting in front of the TV with their spouse or their carer and watching this and just generally how much upset it caused. 

Emily: Well, the chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK has come out and defended the film and also said that the film was actually developed in collaboration with people with dementia, with lived experience. So that’s an interesting point to note that it was developed in collaboration with people with this illness.

She also came out and said that this is not a reflection of everyone’s individual experience because everyone’s experience is different. But the aim was to reflect the reality, which is a harsh reality. So the aim was to reflect that reality for people and try to raise awareness and galvanise support for the research that they’re currently doing.

And like you say, Lucinda, as well, there’s been a lot of positive feedback to the film too. So, Twitter, loads of people have been sharing the film, sharing their own reflections from their experiences with their family members who have Alzheimer’s or of themselves. 

And people have been very supportive of the film and especially the fact that it’s got the voice of Olivia Colman in it, that’s also galvanised support as well for it.

So, it’s a very interesting one and I think the point that you brought up Rory as well about infighting is something to keep in mind because when these campaign films become about the conversation between the two charities then is the point of the campaign film being missed? 

Lucinda: But it is extremely rare as well, isn’t it, to have two charities operating in the same space, pursuing a similar cause, in this case to fight Alzheimer’s disease, for one of them to so openly criticise the other.

Moving on to our main discussion this week, we will be talking about how to successfully manage your charity’s relationship with celebrity ambassadors. So why are we talking about this now, Rory? 

Rory: We’re talking about it in light of the allegations that have come out against Russell Brand after a Dispatches was made about him. It involved four different women coming forward with instances of sexual assault between 2006 and 2013. 

And those allegations have led a number of charities that previously affiliated themselves with Russell, and his foundation that he chaired and founded, the Stay Free Foundation. So those include BAC O’Connor Centre, which is an addiction rehabilitation charity, as well as the Trevi, which is a women and children’s charity, who distanced themselves pretty much immediately as the allegations came to light.

Lucinda: Yes, and we also had the One Can Trust foodbank charity and Comic Relief, who have all cut their prior associations with Russell Brand. 

And interestingly as well, the Charity Commission opened a regulatory compliance case into the Stay Free Foundation to ensure that it’s “effectively managing risks to its reputation and is able to fulfil its purposes in light of these allegations.

But what we’d really like to focus on today is the work that charities can do to better anticipate the risks associated with their celebrity partners falling out of favour before it actually happens. 

And we’re joined by Paul Cullen, a talent director who has worked with a wide range of charities: currently the Alzheimer’s Society. He was previously celebrity manager at the RNLI and Macmillan and before joining the charity sector he worked with high-profile talent in the broadcast and entertainment worlds. 

Hello Paul. 

Paul Cullen: Hello. 

Lucinda: So first things first: “talent specialist” or “artist liaison”. It sounds like an interesting job and line of work. How did you get into it and what does it involve?

Paul: Well, yeah, celebrity liaison, talent manager, handbag carrier to the stars, we are called all sorts of things. But I got into it through starting my career at the BBC in casting and then I went from casting to talent representation, realised that there were some jobs in the charity sector which partnered famous faces with great campaigns. 

And so it’s the elements of casting, because you’re looking at who’s the right person to work with that charity, but also the negotiation that you need around dealing with talent. So yeah, I came through a talent representation route. 

A lot of people come from PR backgrounds or some people come from just having worked in charity and been given the opportunity. So yeah, it’s a niche but interesting element of the sector. 

Lucinda: And what kind of skills does it require? Like if you wanted to hire someone on your team, what would you be looking for? 

Paul: Generally a lot of the job ads for celebrity managers tend to say an overflowing black book of contacts, whereas it’s really understanding how the industry works and how talent work. Because depending on who you’re working with in terms of the charity organisation, you might not be working with the same talent you’ve worked with before. 

So there were some people that I worked with at the RNLI who crossed over into Macmillan, but not everybody would have done because not everyone would have had a cancer experience.

Rory: So what are some things that a charity should consider before engaging a celebrity ambassador? 

Paul: The key things to think about are what would you do with a celebrity if they came on board? So what are the organisation’s objectives? What’s their strategy? What are they trying to achieve? 

So you’re having somebody who’s got a high profile. How can you use their profile to amplify what you’re doing? So understanding what the organisation actually wants to get out of that relationship is key. 

And then because a lot of us are fairly cynical these days, particularly journalists, dare I say in this room, there’s a real cynicism around charities and celebrities partnering just for the sake of raising one or other’s profile.

So what we’re always looking for are people who can tell a story as to why they’re involved with that organisation. So as I say, I’m currently working with the Alzheimer’s Society. So a lot of the talent that we work with will have their own dementia experience. 

And they’ll be able to talk about that in media, which obviously is what journalists want. They want to understand why people are supporting that organisation. What’s their story? 

And their story will then help relate to people reading those articles or watching programmes or listening to programmes. So it’s all about having a good story that they’re willing to talk about. 

Lucinda: And I guess as well, there are lots of different ways that celebrities can get involved and can add value. It’s not just a, here’s a face, let’s raise awareness for the cause. There are many other ways, right? 

Paul: Yeah, there’s lots of ways. So I think traditionally it was very much seen as a PR exercise that you would have a celebrity fronting a campaign or turning up to an event and you get some lovely pictures. 

But actually celebrities and talent want to get involved in the organisations very much like donors do. There’s a reason that we all support particular charities. So now it’s quite common for people with a good profile to call on the government to talk about their policies. 

So Marcus Rashford, obviously famously made Boris Johnson’s government do two U-turns in terms of free school meals. So they understand the value of their platform and I think that it’s not to say that PR opportunities aren’t key. But really it’s thinking about what their followers are interested in, what’s their story and how can they help influence? 

So the word influencer is used quite a lot when we talk about organisations and talent, but actually influence comes in many different forms.

So celebrity support can be policy, can be fundraising. If you look at Soccer Aid, that was established by Robbie Williams and Jonathan Wilkes back in 2006, I think, and has raised over £38m for UNICEF. 

So it can encourage fundraising. When Sarah Millican did a tour, she kindly gave the opportunity to charities to collect after those tours. And one of those tours raised £111,000 off her fan base who were there and putting money in the bucket at the end of the gig. 

So there’s a number of ways in which they can get involved. 

Lucinda: Great and thinking about Russell Brand, it’s not the first and it’s certainly not going to be the last time that a celebrity who is aligned with a charity, or charities, has fallen out of favour.

But what would your advice be for charities who are considering taking on a celebrity ambassador and really want to weigh up the risks associated with that? What should they be thinking about? 

Paul: I mean, the key thing that my job consists of or a celebrity manager job consists of is research. So that starts with who is the right person to support that charity? Why would they get involved? 

And along with that, you do a lot of due diligence around, thankfully, due to the internet and social media, it’s easier to investigate, for want of a better word, what people’s behaviour has been in the past. 

So it’s very much looking into, has there been any controversy attached to that name? Is there anything that they’ve been talking about online that might not align with the values of the organisation? 

So researching and looking as much as you can as to what could be red flags should you start to work with them. Obviously there’s controversies that you just don’t foresee. And the difficulty there is nobody knows what’s coming up. 

But it’s important to have a good, robust crisis comms plan. Look at the risks, consider them. There are risks working with anyone with a profile. And similarly on the reverse side of that, sometimes charities might do stuff that doesn’t necessarily align with celebrities.

So it can work in both ways, but it’s about understanding what the risks might be, having some lines when there’s a specific story around a talent. It’s understanding if the charity organisation fits into that story at all and whether you should be talking about it. 

There are a number of organisations that have spoken, as you’ve mentioned, about their association with Russell Brand, seemingly proactively. And I would always question, well, should you be part of that conversation? 

They justifiably, maybe, particularly given the organisations that are working closely with Russell Brand’s foundation and so there’s that immediate alignment. But often it’s considering whether you’re part of that conversation and should really be talking about that.

Sometimes you can quietly step back from people. Without making a big issue of it or bringing your organisation into that story where sometimes it may not impact you at all. 

Rory: Interesting. So say a charity has done their due diligence, they’ve done the research and they’ve got on board a good celebrity ambassador. How do you measure the value of a successful partnership? What would that look like for a charity?

Paul: It depends. There’s various ways of measuring it. It depends what the celebrity is doing. As I say, the UNICEF example of Soccer Aid, that’s a celebrity-driven project. It’s Robbie Williams’s baby. It involves high profile celebrities. It’s raised £38m. 

So you can naturally assume that without that celebrity support, that money, that fundraising would not be coming into UNICEF in that way. So that’s a direct way. 

Some of the other stuff is policy changes. So Marcus Rashford, obviously that’s quite evidence-based, the government did do a U-turn based on him working with charities. So he was working with FareShare, I believe, to begin with. So it’s that collaboration and that’s what celebrity and charity partnership should be. They should be a collaboration. 

There have been examples. The Joanna Lumley and the Gurkha situation, that’s a key one that people remember that in fact changed policy. So there are elements that you can measure in that way.

Some of the stuff is often difficult to get a proper metric on unless you’ve given yourself a unique URL that only talent are using that leads through to your website. 

But with Alzheimer’s Society, we recently had Sir Jonathan Price put an email out encouraging Alzheimer’s Society supporters to email their MPs to attend the stand at the autumn party conferences. And that had almost 3,000 people email their MPs and that’s not to say without Jonathan’s involvement that people wouldn’t have done that if it had just been an in-house, like a director of policy doing it. But it just gives that additional profile. 

So sometimes you can accurately measure the metrics, but sometimes it’s more anecdotal.

Lucinda: And going back to the point that you made earlier about how sometimes celebrities can be turned off by something that the charity is doing. I wonder if that happens more than the other way round. Do you have any examples to share about when that’s happened? 

Paul: People won’t make it public, I suppose, that they’re stepping back from a charity.

Celebrity management works, as I say, there’s similarities to high-level donors. But sometimes celebrities will dial up their support or dial down their support of the organisation. So if they split from an organisation, they can often do it without causing too much of a controversy and won’t talk about it.

I mean, there was an example some years ago where Minnie Driver had stepped back from Oxfam. And I believe that was to do with one of the partners that Oxfam had begun a relationship with in terms of corporate partners. And I think that was made quite public. And there were a lot of stories around Minnie Driver stepping back from Oxfam.

I got into a bit of a Twitter spat with Minnie Driver about that because I did a lecture and said was she too hasty? And that was all that was reported. But actually, I went on to say, or does she have a justifiable reason? And she did have a justifiable reason and was able to articulate that.

So there are a few occasions, but one of the other ones that dates back quite a long time, it’s not necessarily a celebrity stepping back, but Sandy Toksvig did talk about Save the Children ditched her from their 75th anniversary celebrations because they didn’t want a lesbian meeting Princess Anne.

Lucinda: When was that? 

Paul: That was back in 2014. 

Lucinda: Gosh, so not that long ago. 

Paul: No, so I think she revealed it in 2014. I think it was in the 90s that it actually took place. 

Lucinda: Oh, right. Okay. 

Paul: Yeah. So it dates back to the 90s, but she revealed it. But often celebrities won’t name and shame the organisations because as much as they might have a differing of opinion, they’ll probably want to step back quite quietly and not necessarily bring attention to it and let people make up their own minds as to whether that’s an organisation that they should be supporting or not, rather than wishing to cast too much of a negative light on things, I think. 

Lucinda: And you feel that charities should perhaps be taking a leaf out of their book and doing the same thing, silently stepping back when a celebrity falls from public grace. 

Paul: I really do question why, there have been a number of occasions, I was listening to another episode of the Third Sector Podcast talking about royal patrons.  

And obviously when Prince Andrew and the controversy around him came out, because royal patronage is such a key cornerstone of what the royal family do, there was a genuine interest in what were those organisations that had him as a patron? What were they going to do? How were they going to step back? 

And so you can understand from that perspective. But with more traditional celebs there really is a question like are you involving yourself in a conversation that doesn’t really necessarily need you to comment on it? 

Unless a journalist rings you and says, I’m aware that your organisation has worked with that celebrity and they’ve been accused of this misdemeanour. At the moment a lot of it is accusations, there haven’t been any charges, so until you’ve got the evidence, you want to step back. 

But I would suggest that you want to do it relatively quietly, unless you’re asked by the media, and in which case you should have a robust response as to that relationship, what did it do, why are you now stepping back, which some of the organisations that have spoken about their relationship with Russell Brand have done. 

But they’ve done it it seems without actually being asked by the journalist. I think one of them posted on Instagram immediately after the Dispatches programme. 

And I would question, well, obviously now everyone knows that they had a relationship with his foundation and no longer do. But how many of them knew that that relationship existed in the first place, because they’re quite a small organisation? 

So there’s questions around the benefit to the organisation and do you start getting into a reputation issue? Because people might say, well, why did you start working with him? 

I saw on one comms forum that somebody had said, charities should have been doing due diligence on Russell Brand for years because they’d worked in the industry and rumours had it that he wasn’t a great person to be involved with. 

But that’s rumour. And so at what point do you start taking rumour over what is presented in front of you? 

But again, that’s the due diligence. And if you start researching and just putting in some keywords, you know, “celebrity name” “controversy” tends to be a good one to start with. And you’ll get things coming up and you will find things on social media where people are talking about it. 

But if there’s a consistency of people talking about things in the same way, then perhaps you need to think, well actually, is there an alternative to working with that person? 

And if we do go down that road and there is going to be a revelation at some point, how do we address that? And how do we justify to our donors and to everyone who supports us why we’re working with that particular person? 

Lucinda: So the vast majority of the third sector is made up of small charities. Not many of them are going to be having a dedicated talent manager or talent director. It’s probably going to fall to the chief executive or another member of a very small team.

So what would your advice or tips be for people with that responsibility who would like to have a well-known person attached to their charity brand? 

Paul: As I say, the key thing is to think, why do you want that person? What are they going to add to the organisation? If they say yes, have you got stuff for them to do?

And so the first thing, again, it goes back to research. It goes back to thinking who’s in your network. So is there somebody that your trustees know? Are they well-connected? 

There are quite a lot of founder charities where the CEO will be quite well-connected or gets to a stage where they’re in situations where they’re mixing with high-profile people. And so some will come on board because they strike up friendship. 

But ultimately what you want to do is look at who’s able to talk about your organisation from an authentic point of view. So if they don’t have that lived experience themselves, how can you demonstrate the work that you do? 

So it’s thinking about what you want them to do and how you’re going to engage them.

So the key things I always think about is what are you saying to who and by what channel? So thinking about who your audience are. And so that will start to focus your efforts on well, actually, if we want to get to that particular demographic, we know that we want to be on Loose Women, for example.

Well, that’s the type of person we need to be working with. Can we find a genuine link between them and our organisation? 

And what you need to do is really frame your approach in a very specific way because celebrities get asked, there’s 100 celebrity managers. As you say, smaller organisations might not have someone in-house, but the larger organisations do have this as a function now. So you’re competing for attention from agents. 

So you need to be very specific, show that you’ve done your research, demonstrate to them why you’re approaching their client so that they can understand that you’ve seen something that the client has spoken about, which is why you’re approaching them. And this is the specific thing that you want them to get involved with. 

So it’s thinking quite strategically about what you want them for, what you would do if you engage them. And then the other thing is to think about how you’re going to retain that relationship and how you’re going to build on it and get them more engaged in what you’re doing as an organisation.

Lucinda: And thinking specifically about how you’re going to engage them, would you advise that charities come with a menu of potential options at the outset, or is it better to get to know that celebrity, get them aware of what it is that you’re doing and what you stand for as a charity, and then allow that to grow organically?

Paul: It’s a bit of both, really. So what you say, the first thing is brand awareness. So particularly if you’re a small organisation, it’s not making assumptions that they know who you are. 

So one of the key things when you’re getting in touch is to demonstrate the impact that you have and what have you been able to achieve and what are you looking to achieve in the future?

It’s often useful to have one specific idea. So it might be a fairly low-level, straightforward ask. So is it something that you want them to share on social media, or do you have an event that they might be interested in that’s in their locality that they can come along with? 

So it’s good to have a specific idea about how you want to engage them. But equally having a bit of a menu of ideas of activities that they could get involved in, then hopefully once you’ve met them and engaged with them, you’ll be able to talk about what’s coming up. 

So the key thing is if someone comes on board and says, yes, I’d love to support you, what have you got for me to do? And you’ve got this menu and they can say, yes, that interests me or no, I don’t really have time for that.

So having a menu of stuff is really useful. Having one specific thing that you want to ask them to get involved with and often being quite specific about a date or an event or something that hooks. 

Because if you approach them and say, this is who we are, this is our impact, and we’d love to get you involved. The first question that comes back is, well, what do you want them to do? When is it? 

So agents tend to want to know what is it? When is it? And how long is it going to take? So if you bear those things in mind when you’re making an approach, that helps. 

Because if they say, no, we’re not available on 15 October, then you know for certain that they’re not able to do that, but then you can go back and say, well, is there an alternative?

So you’ve already given them something specific to say yes or no to rather than just rumbling along with a non-specified will you support? 

Because if it’s a good organisation, and there are so many good organisations out there, they’ll probably want to support. But they’ll need to know what that means and how much of their time is it going to take and what’s the impact of their support going to have.

So building all that in, in a very succinct email to an agent or a publicist is a key thing. 

But as I say, particularly if you’re a small organisation, often just looking across who your existing contacts are, so who your trustees are connected to, who your corporate partners, if you’ve got corporate partners, are they working with talent?  

And try and just help where there are doors that might already be ajar, how can you utilise those relationships to connect you to people that are going to help amplify what you’re trying to achieve.

Lucinda: And then thinking about strengthening, consolidating, deepening that relationship, presumably not all of them would be an ongoing connection. Sometimes it might just be for an event or a particular campaign or something. 

I’m thinking about Olivia Colman with the Alzheimer’s Research UK video. That’s presumably off the back of her doing the film The Father.

How do you decide whether you’re going to have them as a one-off or whether it’s going to be a longer term connection? 

Paul: I have my ever decreasing circles of participation. So you have a big group of people who might be those one-off opportunities where they might turn up to an event because their friend is hosting it and that sort of thing, or they’re willing to promote you on social media.

So there’s a number of those. But from the outset, what you’re trying to achieve really are your advocates, which is the next level. And it’s always looking at people who’ve got that story, because ultimately, not everything is PR and not everything is fundraising when it comes to celebrity involvement. 

But everything should be based around communication. So they’re there to communicate on behalf of the organisation. So that might be communicating with your donors, or you might be using them to endorse a pitch that you’ll make into a corporate supporter. 

So there’s thinking about the different ways that their involvement can thread through all the different activity that the organisation has. So whilst it’s good to have people who can come in and just do a one-off thing, ultimately what you’re looking for is to drill down and try and find those more connected relationships so that actually there’s a natural fit. 

And when you’re going to media or you’re going to your different audiences that they’re talking with authenticity around their involvement with the organisation.

Lucinda: Brilliant. Paul Cullen, that was really interesting and I think really useful. Thank you so much for joining us. 

Paul: Thank you.

Lucinda: Well that’s it for this week. We hope you enjoyed our discussion with Paul and earlier Emily. 

And if you did, we would be very grateful if you would leave us a positive review. It’s very helpful as a way of getting other people who might want to know about what we’re talking about to find us. 

Rory: Thanks very much to our guest, Paul Cullen, and our producer, Nav Pal.