Bloggers Are Fine, but They Won't Make It to Conan's Couch

PR Pros Explain Why in This Age of Transparency Big-Name Stars Continue to Rule Endorsement Game

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- From the very first interview of a long media day with a certain celebrity, Michael Sullivan, now the senior VP, North American consumer practice director of MSL Group, knew he was in for a grueling time. As Mr. Sullivan remembers it, the celeb repeatedly failed to name the jewelry brand she was being paid to endorse. "She never mentioned it once," he said.

It's a common PR nightmare, right up there with an endorser rambling on without making sense, or a spokesman awkwardly manhandling the product paying the PR person's bills. In an age of transparency, the public is savvier than ever and can smell a forced endorsement marriage a mile away.

Add to that the chance of an ugly scandal popping up around a well-paid endorser -- think Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Brett Favre or Charlie Sheen -- and one has to wonder: Why bother doing this type of old-school PR anymore? In this age of real Twitter and Facebook fans willing to freely spread the brand gospel about products they love, don't real people carry more legitimacy than the rich and famous?

In a word: no.

"It's as relevant as it's always been, and in some ways even more relevant," said Nick Ragone, partner and associate director of Ketchum, New York. "A lot of celebrities now bring with them their own built-in social networks so you get that amplification effect." Of course, there are caveats. Mr. Ragone said, in every case, the endorser has to be a natural fit for the program, authentic to the message and capable of understanding and delivering it.

Julie Winskie, global president-clients at Porter Novelli, said celebrities may create coverage, but if it's seen as forced, than what's the point?

"Consumers are more discerning about their forms of influence and a lot of this is definitely old-school tactics and marketers buying their way into editorial," Ms. Winskie said. "Worse than old school PR, I'd call it La-Z-Boy PR."

MSL Group's Mr. Sullivan said he's not seeing fewer celebrity endorsers, just a smarter use of the practice. "Everything has to be extended and what was good enough years back isn't anymore," Mr. Sullivan said. "So a great appearance on 'The Tonight Show' isn't enough because it's a limited number of impressions."

And then there's the get-me-one-of-those phenomenon in which a CMO demands a big-name celebrity. "A lot of CMOs only like the rich and famous," said Ms. Winskie "But they need to be careful about who they pick."

Four Ways to Avoid Celebrity-Pitchperson Disaster

Media training: Insist on it even if your celebrity believes he or she doesn't need it.

Collaborate: Let your celeb help develop the messaging and get comfortable with delivering it.

Get it straight: Make sure your pitchperson understands the product proposition.

Practice, practice, practice: Set aside time for rehearsal.

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