In public relations and marketing, the use of third-party spokespeople – and more specifically celebrity spokespeople – has become commonplace. Whether it's Michael Phelps for Subway or Kim Kardashian for Sketchers, brands make significant investments in celebrity endorsements with the hope that their buy-in on a product or service will equal the buy-in of millions or even billions of consumers in the U.S. and around the world.
As you may have seen in recent news coverage, it was revealed that Food Network celebrity chef Paula Deen has been battling Type 2 diabetes since 2008. On the heels of this revelation, she and her two sons were announced as the new spokespeople for pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk's diabetes treatment Victoza.
If you're familiar with Mrs. Deen's cooking shows, you know her food is quintessential southern-style cooking – and there is nothing low fat about it. As a born and raised Georgia girl myself, I can appreciate the deliciousness of a good 'ole fashion southern meal. However, the issue that many people have with this is clear. Deen is now getting paid a substantial amount of money to be the spokesperson for a diabetes medication, yet has been promoting unhealthy eating habits that are proven to contribute to this disease for her nearly 25-year-long career.
For Nova Nordisk, I understand why they thought Deen would make a good spokesperson. She is a well known celebrity, who before this incident was extremely well liked, and she is suffering from the illness their product treats – making her relatable on many levels to their target audience. What's surprising to me is that the marketing / PR folks seemingly glossed over the high likelihood of consumer and media backlash, given the type of food Deen cooks and the eating habits she promotes. For them, this was a fatal mistake. In all of the coverage I saw and read about Deen's new role as spokesperson for Victoza, the focus was not on the treatment and its benefits. The focus was on Deen and the duplicity of her receiving large sums of money to promote a diabetes treatment without taking responsibility for her promotion of the eating habits that are one root cause of this illness.
In my opinion this was detrimental to their brand on two levels. First, while the influx of coverage over this announcement was monumental, I would wager that it was largely negative. Despite the old cliché "all publicity is good publicity," most PR professionals would disagree. Secondly, many consumers will now assume, at least from my point of view, that Novo Nordisk doesn't "get it." They don't understand how eating and lifestyle habits affect the lives of patients using their medication and, more importantly, they don't seem to care as long as those people are still using their diabetes treatment.
This whole situation got me thinking about best practices for companies looking to engage with a third-party spokesperson. Whether it's a celebrity or an industry expert, it's the company's (and PR agency’s) responsibility to do the full due diligence, properly vet all prospects and push themselves to anticipate the negatives. PR professionals need to look beyond top-line benefits that come with bringing on a notable spokesperson and examine all possible outcomes – especially those that could potentially play out in a negative way.
Here are some key takeaways to consider:
1. Research is critical: This may seem obvious, but too often insufficient or incomplete research is the cause of situations like these. There needs to be more than just top-line searching – or top-line assumptions. As PR professionals, we are expected to dig deeper. Take the time to think about the people you are considering and how their professional careers and private lives could affect your brand. The Deen example reminds us to be "worry warts" and consider the ways in which a given spokesperson could be viewed in a negative light, bringing the brands we represent into question along with them.
2. Align on Key Messages: For all initiatives, it's critical to have clear messaging down for the brand's spokespeople. This is of even greater importance when that person is from outside the organization. An important aspect of this is preparing for the tough questions. Think through the areas and / or topics where someone could criticize your program and prepare your spokesperson to answer those questions. When Deen was confronted by reporters about how her diet plays a role in her illness, it didn't appear that there had been proper preparation on how to answer questions regarding the type of food she cooks. Depending on your point of view, Deen came off as clueless or even a bit callous.
3. Prepare for any and all scenarios: Despite thorough research and excellent preparation, there is always the possibility that things will not go as planned. The way your company handles the situation speaks volumes. In the case of Novo Nordisk, once it became clear that the public was reacting negatively to Deen's engagement with their company, they needed to work with Deen to change their messaging to address the public's concerns. Whether they did that quickly enough is open to interpretation.
Working with a third-party spokesperson always carries potential risks, but as PR professionals it's our job to take all necessary steps and precautions to prevent situations like these. What do you think of Novo Nordisk's selection of Dean as spokesperson for Victoza? Did you have any other key takeaways?