The Celebrity Plug Goes the Way of the Dodo

Could the celebrity plug — that beloved loathed centerpiece of many celebrity PR campaigns — be going the way of the Dodo? If the UK’s Guardian newspaper is any indication, it may be. And this could have profound effects on public relations.

To get the background on this movement, you have to go back to a somewhat obscure point in The Guardian’s updated editorial code. According to PRWeek, the revised code includes a new clause addressing the inclusion of promotional material in editorial. By its updated code, The Guardian — one of the world’s most influential newspapers — no longer allows its reporters to “promote products” in order to secure interviews with a PR pro’s client.

PRWeek documents a somewhat mixed reaction to this news among PR pros. Much like the Hollywood PR scene and portions of Manhattan’s publicity culture, Britain’s media is fueled by the back-scratching culture where reporters are granted access to celebrities and high-profile public figures in exchange for plugging their latest book, movie or perfume. Indicative of this culture is a quote from one agency boss who told PRWeek that, “If you didn’t deliver that footnote or plug, it would be considered by a client as a failure.”

Thankfully, others aren’t so cavalier.

Many PR pros see the value this new editorial code, and others like it in journalism, will bring, both to good journalism and ethical PR. Eulogy CEO Adrian Brady told PRWeek that he is pleased with the news, noting that the concept of the media being granted access to celebrities just for endorsement plugs “makes for lazy PR, lazy journalism and a boring read for the consumer.”

I echo Brady’s sentiment.  The quid pro quo aspect of celebrity PR, in which “no plug, no interview” has dominated for years — both in the U.S. and the U.K. — has led to boring copy, lazy PR and the proliferation of sameness among some media outlets. For the media to truly differentiate itself in the digital age, and to add real value to readers’ time and money spent on the product, they must find better ways to produce insightful and interesting reports that don’t rely on outdated practices. In that regard, The Guardian appears to be leading the pact.

Despite a cottage industry in celebrity publicity, the fact remains that getting a “plug” for a client isn’t the province of modern public relations. It harkens back to the days of Sidney Falco in “Sweet Smell of Success,” but is an outdated method of building a brand. And one that, if The Guardian’s effort is any guide, is quickly being fettered out by the media and consumers.

From a PR perspective, this announcement continues to push us to modernize ethical standards and best practices. In an era where clients are demanding more proof of our value and clearer metrics, showing a plug for a product in an interview isn’t exactly the best indicator of public relations’ true business value.

Our value as public relations professionals is and should always be more than helping to plug a client’s products or services. Modern public relations has evolved far beyond publicity. It is now a multifaceted management function. With that comes greater responsibility and external expectations to deliver value that isn’t rooted in outdated tactics.

Celebrity plugs have their time and place. But in an increasingly cynical media environment, where the public is more knowledgeable about how we do our work, and who we seek to influence, we should keep in mind that our actions are intensely transparent. What we do, and how we accomplish it, will eventually come to light. Embracing this reality is helping to put PR on a strong path for future success.

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