Influencer & Celebrity Strategies for Causes & Candidates has to change.

Erin Potts
Oct 7, 2019 · 6 min read

Here are five ways to do it.

Our campaigns don’t understand the difference between celebrity and cultural strategies. And it’s undermining our ability to win.

As a movement, we seem to gravitate towards celebrity. But it might not be the most strategic approach. Celebrity endorsements are when high-profile or famous individuals get paid to endorse a product, service or brand. The basic premise is that the endorsement transfers the positive association an audience has for the celebrity to the object of endorsement. Candidates and campaigns often apply this exact strategy, albeit without payment, to their work with celebrities. But this type of strategy is intentionally shallow and transactional — it was, after all, created to sell widgets! — and therefore it is wholly inadequate for the fundamentally different work of candidates, causes and social justice.

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“I love Bruce. You love Bruce. The kids you work with don’t know who the hell Bruce Springsteen is!”

Cultural strategy, on the other hand, was born within our movements as a field of practice that goes deeper. An article that I co-wrote (with Jeff Chang and Liz Manne) on what cultural strategy is describes how it “speaks to our broadest visions and highest hopes. In the realm of social justice, this means forging and preserving equitable, inclusive and just societies.” It achieves this by investing in and centering the work and roles of artists, storytellers, media makers and cultural influencers that audiences already follow and trust. It does this over the long-term, not a single event or project. It tells connected stories. As such, it “cracks open, reimagines and rewrites fiercely-held narratives, transforming the shared spaces and norms that make up culture [while simultaneously playing a role] in near-term campaigns — helping to shape opinions, beliefs and behaviors that lead to electoral, legislative and policy wins.”

If our task is to sell widgets, celebrity strategy might work. But if we are trying to change hearts, minds and behavior — and fundamentally disrupt stubbornly held dominant narratives — then working within a cultural strategy to engage trusted artists, celebrities and cultural leaders is essential. But our movements and campaigns don’t currently know how to do this well, nor do it at scale. Furthermore, we’ve made no investment in doing it better. The result is that our movements and candidates are often working with the exact wrong celebrities and influencers and doing the exact wrong activities. Instead of posting a depressing laundry list of examples, I’ll just leave you with this spoof on the dreaded direct-to-camera PSA, which says it all.

The Dreaded Direct-to-Camera PSA.

While some celebrity endorsements do bring candidates and causes critical awareness, funds and votes (like Oprah’s 2007 endorsement of Obama which brought in an estimated 1 million votes or the campaigns detailed in this report on “cultural influencers”), there is increased evidence that straight celebrity strategies for causes and candidates don’t achieve what we want them to and can even be doing harm. (See here and here.) Furthermore, we may be witnessing a cultural backlash to influencers because of controversies and criminal acts associated with the likes of the Frye Festival, the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad debacle, Gamergate (which some credit as the birth of “harassment influencers”), influencer porn (yeah, it’s a thing) and the recent college admissions scandals. (BTW, this article completely disagrees with me.)

On top of all of this, the nature of propaganda — which is the spreading of information in support of a cause, and as such should sit squarely in the wheelhouse of causes and candidates — is changing radically and we are not changing with it. Academics have studied how propaganda is mirroring the internet and becoming more and more decentralized. The roles of broadcaster and receiver of propaganda are morphing and “political influencers” are on the rise. They call this phenomenon “participatory propaganda,” and it relies on hyper-targeted audience analysis, provocative content (including but not limited to fake news, memes and outright lies), and an army of micro-influencers that appeal to the audiences who will spread them. (Read more on this in this academic study and this recent piece on Gamergate.)

So how do we orient our campaigns towards truly effective work with influential cultural leaders? Here are some ideas:

  1. Better audience research. Our research techniques to understand audiences are unbelievably antiquated. Thankfully, better ones exist and can be implemented immediately. Kirk Cheyfitz outlines how in this article. (Spoiler Alert: We need to look for the stories and narratives in culture that unite people by using an iterative, multidisciplinary research approach that includes typical techniques as well as others like cultural audits, implicit bias and other techniques.)
  2. Audience-matching is essential. Once we understand our audiences better, we have to also understand that not all high-profile cultural leaders are equal — who appeals to you and me might not appeal to another audience. Obvious, I know. But, as someone who worked with musicians for 25 years, I can’t tell you how many times I was asked by well meaning nonprofit leaders and campaigns “to get Bruce Springsteen.” One time the organization asking me worked with inner-city young people! My response was, “I love Bruce. You love Bruce. The kids you work with don’t know who the hell Bruce Springsteen is!” And then I told the nice man on the phone to go ask the kids who the local and national cultural leaders they listen to and love are (hello, audience research!) and then seek to work with them. Sometimes this will mean working with micro-influencers, but that is highly effective as the studies on participatory propaganda show! Besides, Beyoncé has THREE kids now. She cannot play your event! (For more on this audience-matching, see point # 2 in this article.)
  3. Hire strategists who are bilingual in both campaigns and culture. There are a growing cohort of consultants and consulting teams that do the research and strategy work outlined in this article. Campaigns usually hire us to do “Get Me a Celebrity!” or “Produce This [Event/Project/Content]!” type work. But strategy needs to come first. So start hiring cultural strategists to put together the plans that can achieve your true goals of engagement of particular audiences. These plans can identify, amongst other things, the right cultural leaders to work with, the cultural “water coolers” and spaces where your audiences hang out, what events and content to produce, and more. Crystal Echohawk, Tracy Sturdivant, Liz Manne, Wyatt Closs, Mik Moore, Yosi Sergent, Jason Rzepka and so many others are out here doing amazing work. (Feel free to add more names of great strategists in the comments of this article!)
  4. Build the capacity of cultural leaders. We know that cultural leaders who go deeper on issues and work on them over time tend to be seen as having more authenticity by their audiences. Furthermore, when we work with cultural leaders over time, they have the runway to contribute not just their celebrity, but also their talents and knowledge of how to engage their natural audiences. Great organizations are already doing this work to invest in cultural leaders, in essence building a bench of influential leaders who are ready, willing and able to work on today’s most important issues. They need more funding, so please send your foundation checks to: Harness, Revolutions Per Minute, the Center for Cultural Power, and the League, just to name a few.
  5. Try new approaches. Reinventing influencer and cultural strategies will require experimentation and trying new things. This call for student debt surrogates from Elizabeth Warren’s campaign is probably the most innovative thing I’ve seen in this space. Because rather than celebrities, it is looking for “regular people” who know an issue intimately to be surrogates. And given how Warren is running her “grassroots” campaign, it is also completely on brand. Furthermore, it shows the power and potential of story that is at the heart of cultural strategies. (And for the record, I don’t know who in the campaign came up with this, but they deserve a raise. Hell, let me know who you are and I’ll at least buy you a drink!)
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Working with the right cultural leaders is part of a winning strategy for causes and candidate. Whether you care most about the 2020 election, climate, racial or gender justice, or any of the other massive issues our movements are working on, it’s time to get smarter on how we do this.

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