Never underestimate how celebrities can influence issues

From fracking to anti-vaxxers, PR advisers would do well to remember the power of celebrity voices on serious issues, writes Tony Jaques.

Does it really matter when self-styled influencers enter into important public issues? Like the recent headlines when the 20-year-old wife of an Australian football player spoke out against vaccination and told her 7,000 followers that hospitals can’t be trusted.

The answer is yes, it does matter. Celebrities are welcome to hold nutty notions about the latest super food, about steaming intimate parts of their bodies, or the supposed benefits of drinking their own urine. Or even rapper B.o.B. insisting the earth is flat.

But when it comes to substantial issues of community health or public policy, celebrities have a real influence which can’t be ignored. For example, the role of celebrities in helping drive the anti-vaxx movement is well known and widely reported, as is the very real impact of their influence.

Late last year the WHO reported a 30% jump in cases of measles because of anti-vaxx messages. And the Australian Government has just announced a $12 million national TV advertising blitz to counter vaccination misinformation.

Jim Carrey has spoken out against certain vaccines

However celebrity influence has impact way beyond issues such as the anti-vaxx campaign. Think no further than the #MeToo movement which largely began with Hollywood celebrities and has now entered the mainstream social conscience around the world and led to proposed legislation.

Of course, the role of Hollywood is nothing new. One of the first modern superstar interventions in a serious public issue was the ground-breaking case in 1989 when actress Meryl Streep was recruited as part of an activist PR blitz against the chemical Alar, used in the production of apples. The campaign caused nationwide panic among American consumers and government regulators, who forced the product off the market and temporarily brought the apple industry to its knees.

The American Apple Producers’ PR advisor Frank Mankiewicz, said at the time: “We got rolled. When you’re dealing with a nutritionist named Meryl Streep, you haven’t got a chance.”

Or more recently when, New York Governor Mario Cuomo accepted the recommendation of his Health Commissioner Howard Zucker to ban ‘fracking’ to extract deep shale gas. Zucker admitted there was a lack of hard data about the effects of fracking on public health, but he argued there were sufficient ‘red flags’ to warrant a ban.

And those ‘red flags’ were largely raised by a high-profile six year New York campaign against fracking by hundreds of celebrities including Yoko Ono and Lady Gaga.

Celebrity issue interventions are not necessarily based on wrong-headed beliefs or what has come to be known as fake news. But the rise of social media has certainly made that possibility easier. In fact a recent study into the spread of information on Twitter showed that lies on social media spread much quicker than the truth. The researchers concluded: “Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”

But regardless whether or not their intervention is based on fact, the capacity of celebrities to influence issues should not be underestimated

Perhaps experienced issue managers can learn from young PR professional Isabella Ziino writing recently about high-profile models endorsing the chaotic Fyre music festival in the Bahamas: “I hope one day we can all sit around the table with our cups of normal green tea and laugh at the time that we put our trust in strangers with pretty pictures on social media.”

This piece first appeared in Tony Jaques’ Managing Outcomes newsletter. You can subscribe here.


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