Digital Death: The Wrong Way to Launch a Celebrity PR Campaign

Last Updated Dec 7, 2010 7:31 AM EST

When I heard about the Digital Death campaign, I had to rub my eyes.

Seriously? A bunch of celebrities, with millions of followers/fans on Twitter and Facebook combined, were going to stop using the social networks until said fans donated $1 million to an HIV-related non-profit organization, as a way to raise awareness -- and money -- for the cause? And it kicked off on December 1, World AIDS Day, no less.

Be still, my beating heart!

In my opinion, even though they hit the $1 million goal today ($1,000,125 donated at 6:09 pm ET), this campaign misses the mark in so many ways. I wrote at length about it on my own blog, so I won't bore you by regurgitating all that here.

Celebrity tie-ins, as a public relations tactic, can pay dividends for any organization. But before you embark on trying to boost your story in the public eye by bringing a celebrity on board, consider the following two questions to make sure your campaign gets a boost up, instead of landing dead-on-arrival.

First, Is there a natural fit between the celebrity and the campaign?
Often, organizations will try to engage celebrities by appointing them to their boards of directors, naming them (with their permission) ambassadors for campaigns, and so on. But it's important, before doing any of this, to ensure that the celebrity you have in mind has an affinity for your organization and/or campaign.

In the case of Keep A Child Alive, Alicia Keys is the non-profit's co-founder, so certainly is vested in the cause from a personal point of view. However, many of the other celebrities participating in the Digital Death campaign have no overt connection to, or passion for, stamping out HIV.

The only thing they seem to have in common is that they are mostly in the entertainment business, and many of them have large numbers of followers on Twitter and Facebook.

This last bit is important, since the central theme of the campaign was that these celebs would not tweet or post updates to Facebook until their fans donated enough money to KACA. If they had been active in their association with HIV-related causes before signing on to the campaign, they would have had a much more engaged following. As a result, their fans may have been really upset by their lack of updates, resulting in the campaign raising more money, more quickly (side note: when I started writing this post on December 6, the campaign's "coffin counter" was only up to $420,604 as of 3:47 pm ET -- not a huge amount of money raised over six days for a campaign that has received this much publicity, not to mention a remarkable turnaround in just over a couple of hours).

Second, is the campaign designed to drive awareness to the cause... or to the celebrity?
Much of the criticism of Digital Death stems from the fact that if this campaign raised much awareness, most of it centered on the celebrities, their fascination with social networks, and their implied belief that their status updates are critical to their fans' daily lives.

Clearly, they're not.

But, even more markedly, very little of the media and blog coverage I've seen so far discusses what a huge problem HIV is globally or the efforts that KACA is taking to combat the disease.

Wasn't that the whole point of the campaign? And I can't help but think, had the celebs actually encouraged people to tweet and post more about the campaign, as marketer Rohit Bhargava suggests, it may have made more of a difference. At least it would have saved them from the ridicule they have received. But then, this is Hollywood. What happens outside the bubble stays outside the bubble, right?

If you are going to bring a celebrity on board to help promote your campaign, make sure that the stars in your eyes don't blind you as to why they're really there.

For a change, it shouldn't be about them. This time around, it should be about you.

Shonali Burke is Principal of Shonali Burke Consulting where she helps turn businesses' communication conundrums into community cool. She opines on PR and social media at Waxing UnLyrical and is considered one of 25 women that rock social media.