Opinion: handle celebrities with care, says John Knight

Fuelled by a nation ill at ease with itself and people wanting to emulate someone else, we have become obsessed with the lifestyles and opinions of people who, quite frankly, can leave a lot to be desired.

Even the third sector has caught the bug: you can't peruse a publication or charity website without being barraged with the smiling faces of countless celebrities who support various causes. But do they always bring value to our sector? 

There are good and not so good celebrities. I am not arguing for or against their appearance in charity publications and events, but I believe that charities should be taking a cautious approach to their relationships with celebrities and the effect they could have on their reputations should the gloss become tarnished.

The Westminster farce actor of the 50s and 60s, Lord Rix, is an example a celebrity supporter having had nothing but hugely beneficial effects for the charity's reputation. Brian, whose association with Mencap stretches back decades, has championed the rights of people with learning difficulties at every level of British society - effectively so. He brought to the charity his commitment, fame and personal knowledge - to great effect. Princess Diana's support for charities helping people with HIV/Aids was seen as a turning point in destigmatising the condition. Her work with the anti-landmines charities is seen as crucial in putting effective pressure on the arms industry.

But then there is the example of Cherie Blair, who apologised for accepting money for a lecture tour in Australia two years ago. She received a lot of negative publicity for the incident, as did the children's cancer charity she was supposed to be promoting. Who was the greater beneficiary here? Remember also the foppish English actor found committing a lewd act in a car in America. How would this have enhanced the reputation of the many charities he supported? We all make mistakes. Getting it right is difficult - but when you do, the benefits can be amazing. When you don't, head for the hills.

John Knight is assistant director, policy and campaigns, at Leonard Cheshire Disability: jk.thirdsector@googlemail.com.

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