Analysis: Sector still believes in the power of fame

John Plummer finds that many third sector organisations think the relationship between charities and celebrities is still strong and effective

Lady Gaga supports charities
Lady Gaga supports charities

Some charities are sceptical about Daniel Brockington's argument that media interest in their celebrity stories is waning and that the voluntary sector needs to rethink its relationship with the stars.

Julian Beynon, high-profile supporter manager at Leonard Cheshire Disability, says the value of Brockington's research is limited because it did not include some celebrity-obsessed newspapers, such as the Daily Mail and Daily Star, or consider magazines.

"I struggle to walk into a newsagent's and not see a celebrity on a magazine cover," says Beynon, who chairs the Celebrity Managers' Forum networking group for charities, which now has 60 members - compared with three when it was launched seven years ago.

Beynon also highlights the fact that the research does not take into account social media. "People consume media in so many different ways now," he says. "Lady Gaga has 15.2 million followers on Twitter; Stephen Fry has three million and a tweet from him can crash your website."

Beynon, a former celebrity agent, says journalists have always wanted a news angle on celebrity stories and doubts whether this has changed over time.

David Piner, public relations manager at the British Red Cross, also thinks it's wrong to draw conclusions about declining media coverage without considering the huge impact celebrities have on charity social media campaigns. "A tweet from someone like Annie Lennox has a huge impact on traffic," he says.

Piner says celebrities provide other, often overlooked benefits besides column inches. "They can also be fundraisers, volunteers, donors and advocates, although often these roles aren't as high-profile," he says.

He agrees, however, that the market for celebrity charity stories has grown more sophisticated. "There might have been a time when celebrities were the answer to everything," he says. "I'm not sure that's the case now. The public is more demanding and talent agencies are more careful about what their clients choose to do."

Jasmine Dotiwala, executive producer for London 360, a TV and online show for young Londoners produced by the Community Channel, says people have tired of vacuous celebrity stories, but the relationship between charities, celebrities and the media remains strong.

"There has been a shift in the mainstream media - think of the London Evening Standard's Dispossessed Fund," says Dotiwala. "Celebrities are aligning themselves to positive stories. They are sick of reading about gang culture and young people being stigmatised."

Dotiwala, who used to work for MTV, says some celebrities are more inclined these days to get deeply involved with two or three causes that resonate with them rather than "jumping on charities only when they have something to sell". Charities, she says, benefit from this.

Maria McDonagh, who looks after the Alzheimer's Society's vice-presidents, patrons and ambassadors, says her charity works with celebrities only if they are seriously interested in the cause. "They have to be credible," she says. She is not convinced that media interest is weakening, either.

All of the charity employees we spoke to denied that corporate partners had pressured them to recruit celebrities for their own purposes.

But Alex Thomas, celebrity liaison manager at the company Independent Celebrity Liaison, which gives small charities access to celebrities, says she was aware of it happening in the sector when she was employed by charities in celebrity roles. "Companies saw it as a quick route to getting a celebrity and not paying them," she says.

Thomas says she once heard of charities 'buying in' talent to satisfy corporate partners as Brockington reports. "That's very scary because it sets a precedent," she says.

Thomas, whose former employers include Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity, says the sector's appetite for star names remains as strong as ever.

She says the creation of her company, which aims to help smaller charities that can't afford a full-time celebrity liaison officer, is evidence of this. "The British culture is fascinated by every event in the lives of the famous," she says.

Read about Dan Brockington's research

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