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This Valentine’s Day…. Be careful who you get into bed with

14th February 2017

Jon Meakin considers the ups and downs of third party endorsements.

The unceremonial dropping by YouTube and Disney of online influencer PewDiePie following anti-Semitic remarks and Nazi references in some of his videos, is a cautionary tale.

A whole branch of the PR industry is dedicated to aligning brands with celebrities. Once upon a time it used to be pop stars, actors and athletes, but now, with the explosion of reality television, YouTube and other online channels, there are hordes of influential individuals eager to cosy up with big brands, and plenty of brands willing to shell out big bucks for the halo effect and reach that such an association affords them.

But the PewDiePie episode reminds us of the potential risks to brands with these deals.

Perhaps more than any other category, celebrity ‘brands’ can become tarnished or toxic within the space of a news cycle. At the end of the day, they are human – and therefore fallible. And our media (on the surface at least) have historically been quite conservative, and willing hang a young pop star out to dry at the merest whiff of a sex or drugs scandal.

There have been signs in recent years that the public are more forgiving, and some brands have held firm to their brand ambassadors in the face of scandals. After she was photographed taking cocaine, Kate Moss was dropped by a number of brands, including Burberry, Chanel, and H&M, but Rimmel either took the view that the storm would blow over (which it did), that the public didn’t care that much (they didn’t seem to) or that the ‘bad girl’ thing actually helped their brand (it probably did). More than a decade later, Kate moss is still the face of Rimmel – and many other brands besides.

Each of those brands obviously made a judgment call when Kate hit the front pages – and presumably did so at the time of signing her up. I mean ‘Model Takes Cocaine’ is hardly a shocking or unexpected headline, is it? A risk analysis will have been undertaken, and a crisis preparedness plan put in place – something we do for all types of organization, in relation to all types of risk.  

But the PewDiePie incident is something else. A model taking drugs, an actor having an extra-marital affair, an athlete in a doping scandal… these are all risks that one can predict and, to some extent, prepare for. But anti-Semitic remarks from a YouTuber popular with kids? Even our crisis comms leader David Schraeder, accustomed to donning the black hat in these situations, would have had a hard time seeing that one coming.

Part of the issue here is surely that anyone can be a YouTuber. And even the most successful (as PewDiePie was) lack the kind of sophisticated management and support that ‘regular celebrities’ enjoy. The land of online influencers is the Wild West.

So what’s the lesson here? That YouTubers and online influencers are too high risk? That you never know who’s going to turn out to be a Nazi sympathizer? Well not exactly. If there is a lesson, it’s threefold:

  1. Be aware: If you’re going to enter a partnership with a celebrity of any kind, go into it with your eyes wide open. Be aware of the potential risk to your brand, as well as the up-side;
  2. Be prepared: Employ risk and crisis comms experts to help you identify, categorize and map the risks, and develop a plan to deal with any and all risks. Game them out and be serious about scenario planning;
  3. Act quickly: Disney and YouTube got it right by dropping PewDiePie faster than you can say Mickey Mouse. Clear and decisive action is way better than death by a thousand cuts (see Michael Flynn).

Having said all that, it’s important to remember that these kinds of endorsement can be incredibly valuable to a brand, and most of the time they are happy and harmonious partnerships. Most of the time…  

Jon Meakin

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