Happy New Year and the Problem with Celebrity Spokespeople!

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This is the third installment of me reminiscing about a situation that occurred — this time involving the use of a celebrity spokesperson — that derailed a publicity tactic due to forces beyond my or my client’s control.  I share this story with the hope that it will educate PR newbies (and old “hacks” as well) to some of the things that can happen that you simply may not have planned for.

Many years ago, after I had left a large, Global PR agency, and co-founded a sub-specialty company, RCM Broadcast Communications (specializing in SMTS/RMTs, B-roll Production, PSAs, Social Media Videos, etc.) I had the distinct displeasure of working with a celebrity who had become a true cultural icon and was regarded as the undisputed global “ambassador” of New Year’s Eve.  I should also mention that it was 1999 and there was much attention and panic being paid to the arrival of the New Year, with people worrying about Y2K and other impending doomsday scenarios that may befall us as we ushered in the arrival of the 21st Century.  There was also a built-in media interest in anything having to do with the upcoming New Year, which made having a spokesperson regarded as the official ambassador of New Years Eve a real coup.

The PR firm I was contracted by represented a pharmaceutical company’s popular cholesterol-lowering drug that was soon going “off patent” which meant the big push was on to gain greater consumer awareness and generate stronger brand loyalty.  The PR firm came up with the idea to create a traveling exhibit that would enable consumers to have their cholesterol checked while getting educated about the very scary medical problems associated with having high cholesterol.  Consumers were also encouraged to “talk with their healthcare providers” about medicines that can help them reduce their cholesterol “number.”  (The results of the campaign could then be used to demonstrate to healthcare providers how wonderful the pharma client was in helping to drive people into their offices, increasing their revenues through patient visits, and rationalizing why doctors should feel good about prescribing their cholesterol drug to more of their patients.)

The campaign had a real catchy name and enlisted the help of the celebrity I alluded to earlier, and was now hitting the road, taking the program on a national tour that included a stop in Cleveland, that would also be the location from which I would be holding a satellite media tour using the celebrity-cum-ambassador-cum-spokesperson as the mouthpiece for the drug company’s Rx medicine.

Prior to the date of the satellite tour I found out that this spokesperson had been used as the “talent” in a NYC studio (that I worked out of all the time) just a few weeks earlier, but for a different client’s satellite tour to promote the new Chrystal Ball that would be dropped in Time’s Square on New Year’s Eve.  This was in clear violation of his contract, which stipulated that he would NOT participate in any sponsored/paid media activities for at least a 3 months preceding “our” tour.

On the morning of the tour we conducted the first two interviews, during which the spokesperson plugged the new Chrystal Ball and the name of the makers of the ball, but neglected to mention the name of the cholesterol drug; the makers of which were footing the bill for the tour and paying his salary!  My client pulled me aside in near panic and asked me to play “bad cop” and “get him to mention the damn drug.”

I walked onto the set and made up a story about how the last interview he did with a TV station in San Antonio resulted in several calls to the station from viewers wanting to know “what cholesterol drug” the celebrity was taking (he did mention that he was being treated for high cholesterol).  Without even looking at me he replied:  “I’m not saying [insert name of drug], they’re not paying me enough and I won’t do it.”  I immediately replied (in a not so pleasant tone), “Okay, if that’s the case then will you please refrain from mentioning [insert name of Chrystal Ball manufacturer’s name] in anymore interviews?  I then added, “Oh, and by the way, your friends at [insert name of NYC studio he worked out of just weeks prior] said to say ‘hello.'”  I may have also mentioned something to him about his contract and the pharma company’s team of lawyers

He would not acknowledge my presence or take any pointers or direction from me for the rest of the morning.  I had become persona non-grata and I didn’t really care.

My advice:  when securing a spokesperson make sure the contract is ironclad, let the spokesperson know that you will be engaging the services of a media monitoring company to track his or her media activities leading up to your project, and don’t be afraid to call him or her on something that is clearly not cool with you as it relates to your program objectives.