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When do charities need celebrities?

Celebrity support can be a huge benefit - providing it's "done well"
Celebrity support can be a huge benefit - providing it's "done well"

When celebrities represent NGOs, the headlines aren’t always what their charities might hope for. Laurinda Luffman investigates a tricky issue...

The United Nations (UN) currently has more than 180 Goodwill Ambassadors. The role of these ambassadors, most of whom are international celebrities, is to raise the profile of the work being carried out by UN agencies such as the Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the WFP. In her capacity as an Ambassador against Hunger, Christina Aguilera was therefore recently filmed with children receiving a free school meal in Rwanda and also among refugee families in a camp in Kigeme. The footage was used in a promotional video to boost a public donation campaign for the WFP by a large US restaurant group (which includes KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell). Surely, the involvement of such a huge star as Aguilera could only be a good thing.

However, one US journalist caused outrage by writing about Aguilera’s visit to “war-torn Rwanda” for People magazine (the reference has since been removed). Commentators were quick to point out that Rwanda has been peaceful for more than twenty years and that the refugee camp in Kigame is home to families fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Getting the message right

Family in RwandaIt’s unsurprising that such insensitive reporting by a journalist should aggravate Rwandan nationals. Speaking to the news agency IRIN, another international charity which runs its own ambassador programme agreed that celebrities have to be “thoroughly briefed and informed about the purpose of a particular campaign”. Subsequent statements and press releases also have to be carefully worded and managed so that the right messages are conveyed to the public.

But why do charities feel the need to enlist the help of celebrities, especially when fly-in, fly-out trips can so easily result in the wrong kind of publicity or image?

The UN and other large charities maintain that such stars have the ability to reach vast numbers of people, helping to boost campaigns in a powerful way. With millions of twitter and Facebook followers, singers, film and sports stars enable charities to connect with huge new audiences. The UN also argues that when it assesses the cost benefits of using celebrities, the media coverage gained and the funds raised give a strong indication of how effective using a celebrity ambassador can be. A spokesperson for the UN Development Programme told IRIN: “We call on them only when we are sure we will receive a return on the investment.”

Rwanda Village openingWin-win?

Nevertheless, even with an increase in donations as enough justification for using celebrities, aid organisations are more conscious about reducing negative imagery and choosing their ambassadors with care. UN agencies are increasingly opting for African stars for the continent and also searching for figures with charity or campaigning experience. So for example, the South African actress Hlubi Mobya is another WFP Ambassador Against Hunger and has a background of public service and activism as an HIV/AIDS campaigner, which makes her a very credible representative.

As one charity commented with dry understatement, when the right celebrity is picked and trips are “done well”, it should be a “win-win” for both the star and the cause. If not, charities may find they are garnering the kind of media coverage they could really do without.

SOS Children works with local people to provide the best support for vulnerable families in Rwanda. Find out more...