As another reality TV show wound to it’s conclusion, so it’s winner promptly became the latest social media suggestion of a potential celebrity chief for Guiding. This was only days after the next lady due join the Royal family was the one being touted, hot on the heels of suggestions of a former Blue Peter presenter, who had succeeded a former Olympic rower, several female presenters of nature/countryside television programmes, and various suggestions before that. The cynic in me suggests that soon the reality show winner will have been forgotten, another name suggested, and so it will continue. And if a celebrity chief ever were to be appointed to head UK Guiding (which is a ‘big if’ given we don’t even know whether the topic is under consideration), I suspect there would be few praising whoever got such a job, no matter who it might be or whatever relevant skills and qualifications they might have for the post – that few drowned out by the flood of critics. Regardless.
First question – why might we want a celebrity chief? A celebrity could attract publicity to Guiding, and could give it a higher profile, especially if high profile themselves - which could encourage recruitment, especially youth recruitment. Higher profile is likely if they chose the right celebrity – one who would be known to and attractive to all youth members (even the youngest), and who would have on-going fame amongst the youth age groups in particular over an extended period (not the classic ‘famous for 15 minutes’). But - also someone who would present a positive image for Guiding to parents and the public, would mention Guiding at many of their public appearances whether specifically Guiding-related ones or not, and who would have the availability to attend some of the key Guiding events each year.
We would equally need someone who could do all that whilst avoiding ever doing or saying anything controversial for the tabloids to latch onto – we have to consider the age range, especially impressionable younger members – so no inappropriate behaviour, at any time. From the experience of Scouting we can see pros and cons of being fronted by a celebrity whilst having a ‘working chief’ in the background – and a glance at the Scout social media forums confirms that the picture is mixed, with a lot of negative comment from Leaders regarding their current postholder (youth opinion is harder to discern). This leads us onto the less positive reason for some in Guiding wanting a celebrity chief or figurehead for Guiding – simply ‘because the Scouts have got one’. Need we copycat everything they do, and be assumed to be displaying jealousy? Or would the pros outweigh the cons and justify that risk?
On the pro side, there is no doubt that positive publicity enhances the image and reputation of any organisation, and celebrities can bring media attention and coverage to events that wouldn’t otherwise attract it. Media are far more likely to turn out to any event if there is guaranteed to be a celebrity appearance and photo opportunity to fill their gossip pages with, merely in exchange for mentioning the charity. And dependent on the background of the celebrity, it may help to bring awareness of the organisation to sections of youth which can sometimes be hard to reach or to engage with, helping to kill some of the myths about the organisation being white, Christian, middle class, etc.
On the con side, though a celebrity chief could attract publicity – you wouldn’t have any choice over what sort of publicity it might be. Ill-drafted tweets, controversial opinions, ‘wardrobe malfunctions’, ‘four-letter words’, ‘indiscretions’ – any or all would automatically be presented as ‘Guides’ chief says’ or ‘Guides’ chief does’ – whether there was any connection between what was allegedly said/done and their Guiding role, or none whatsoever, and whether it was recent or years ago. Not all publicity is good publicity, and with anyone high-profile enough to draw media attention, all types of media attention will indeed be drawn, good and bad. To quote Jonathan Swift “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it”. We’ve all seen the giant-size tabloid headlines and double-page spreads accusing someone in the public eye of whatever kind of inappropriate behaviour (and all failed, despite trying, to spot the single paragraph of retraction, months later, buried in the bottom corner of an inside page under a bland title!)
Nevertheless, even with a ‘celebrity chief’ you would still need to have a ‘working chief’ as well – someone to chair the meetings, to attend the County and Region events around the country, to actually take charge of the running of the organisation, to make the policy decisions, and do all the backroom work which doesn’t attract attention, but is often more important than the occasional public appearances which do. Would you still be able to attract a sufficiently high calibre of candidate to this ‘working chief’ job, if candidates knew it would mean doing all the hard work in private, but being upstaged at public events by the celebrity who turns up for 20 minutes, signs a few autographs, says the ‘few words’ you scripted, then isn’t seen for dust?
The other thing to consider, is what you would actually be getting for your money (for of course, the celebrity’s presence would generate expense even if they themselves were giving their time for free). How many hours a year would the celebrity be able to allocate to your cause? If they are still active in their career then any charity commitments would have to be fitted around their working hours – and your bookings then fitted in amongst the bookings from the other causes which have already recruited the same celebrity, or may in future do so. Would the days/times the celebrity can offer be ones Guiding could readily utilise? Would they be willing to attend events around the UK and occasionally beyond, or only those within an hour’s travel of their home? Then you need to consider the expenses – when attending events will they require a driver to take them to and from the venue, business class air travel or first class train? Helicopter? Dressing rooms? Catering? Accommodation? Security? Will they be willing to meet and chat to youth members at events – or would they need to be protected and kept apart for ‘security reasons’? Will they be bringing staff with them, and will those staff need hospitality too? Would they be willing to appear in Guiding uniform - or not? Will extra admin staff be needed to deal with their correspondence and itineraries?
Then, what sort of person would we want to have, and what would we expect of them? If you ask someone newly famous, there is the risk that their career may wane – and you end up with someone who doesn’t attract any media coverage for you, and whom younger members have not heard of. If you ask someone more established then they are likely to already have many other charity commitments taking up what free time they can offer to volunteer work. Also , someone more established may not currently be at a career peak – Rainbows and younger Brownies will only have heard of someone who has been high profile during the last 2-3 years, regardless what they have achieved in the past (or may achieve in the future), nor whether they are reckoned to have ongoing fame by adults. If you choose an adventurer then it may help to promote your organisation as outdoors-based and exciting, but you risk negative headlines if the adventurer is caught taking safety shortcuts, if any accidents happen to them, or if they are caught implying hardship or jeopardy where actually there was little or none. If you choose someone in the music or acting trades then their performances and outfits (far in the past as well as recent) are likely to be analysed in search of anything inappropriate for young children. Sports people are famous when at the peak of their career, but careers are short and they retire comparatively young, usually to a low-profile.
Last, and perhaps most important – if we look back at some of the people who have been caught up in public scandals over the last few years – many of them are the sort of people who were or could have been approached by charities to be ambassadors. We as an organisation have to consider very carefully who we bring into contact with our young members. Even those who seem to be good role models may turn out to have skeletons hidden in their closets. Is the risk of that justified by what might be gained?
Do we want a celebrity figurehead? And if so, how do we decide on the right person, what sort of role would we be looking for them to take, and to what extent would we be willing to live with the expense and the possible consequences?