Russell Hargrave: Prince Harry is great - but generally beware the celebrity

Fame is a tricky thing for charities, and can pose particular problems for communications teams, writes our columnist

Prince Harry is on the box tonight for a documentary showcasing the work of his charity Sentebale, and ITV are pulling out all the stops.

For an hour on prime time, viewers can follow Harry to Botswana and Lesotho, ten years after he established Sentebale to help children there affected by HIV and Aids. The programme will be anchored by News at 10's Tom Bradby.

This will partly be a chance for Third Sector readers to indulge their inner geek.

According to the Charity’s Commission’s stats, Sentebale turned over about £3.5m last year, with a commitment to supporting orphans and other kids in need.

That’s a hefty sum with which to do some seriously wide-ranging work, but nowhere close to the hundreds of millions commanded by the giant development charities. I’ll be watching to see how this cash translates into impact on the ground.

But let’s not kid ourselves. This isn’t really about charity, it is about celebrity.

These days Prince Harry’s public profile may rest more on good works and serving his country than on dressing like a Nazi (no doubt to the relief of his PR minders at Clarence House) but his charity gets the ITV 9pm slot because he is famous. And public interest in the comings and goings of famous people is insatiable.

I have been in the room when the cry goes up: "Let’s find ourselves a celebrity!" However, fame is a tricky thing for charities, and can pose particular problems for comms teams.

Jump into bed with someone famous and the results could be ideal.

Newsdesks will be more likely to return your calls. Your charity’s Twitter-reach will go through the roof. Over in the fundraisers’ office, you will be received like a hero.

This is why people like these sorts of partnerships.

Except that you are also deciding to cede control – quite a lot of control – to someone who, even if they share your values, doesn’t work for your charity.

It could go wrong. Some charity celebrity deals have ended up causing a headache, either because that celebrity falls from grace (Rolf Harris’s charitable work springs to mind) or because the deal looked rather poorly-designed to begin with.

I understand the temptation celebrities offer. I have been there. But mine is a cautionary tale.

While working for a small refugee charity, I decided a celebrity patron would be the perfect face of a fundraising drive.

I chose a famous footballer who was also a refugee. What better way to show we had our finger on the cultural pulse?

Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed. No one else thought that pursuing football agents for months was a productive use of my time. I was told to forget about it.

Shortly after, that footballer was in his local paper apologising profusely for the way he had behaved on a night out. Shortly afterwards, he was on the back pages for drink-driving.

A bullet dodged.

Prince Harry will be getting his hands dirty on the TV tonight, helping out for a cause close to his heart. Good for him. But if this inspires you to welcome celebrities to your own charity – tread carefully. 

Russell Hargrave is the press manager at the independent trust Power to Change

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