When scandal strikes: the delicate balance of celebrity ambassadors and charities

Charities often rely on celebrity ambassadors to raise awareness, attract donors, and amplify their message. However, what happens when an ambassador becomes embroiled in a scandal that has the potential to overshadow a charity’s message?

A media frenzy involving a charity’s ambassador can overshadow its mission, erode public trust, and tarnish the organisation’s hard-earned reputation. Deciding when to cut ties, or when to stick with an ambassador, can be a treacherous balancing act and actually pulling the trigger must be done in a considered manner.

This was brought into sharp focus during the Philip Schofield controversy. The Prince’s Trust quietly put out a statement announcing that they were going to be parting ways with him. They simply stated: “In light of Phillip’s recent admissions, we have agreed with him that it is no longer appropriate to work together.”

You don’t have to go back far to see the last high-profile example of this happening either. Back in March 2023, domestic abuse charity Refuge cut ties with Fiona Bruce over clarifications she made on air about accusations of abuse made against Stanley Johnson. And no one needs reminding of the Prince Andrew saga; he was patron of more than 200 charities. So, whilst Schofield may be the latest of many, he certainly won’t be the last.

The celebrity ambassador tactic obviously isn’t without risk, then, but it’s a vital strand of any charity’s marketing and fundraising strategy. There are ways to mitigate the risk, such as having a solid vetting procedure and a considered crisis plan.

Thorough vetting

Before entering a partnership, due diligence is essential. This starts with thinking about the service your charity offers and whether your potential ambassador is a good fit. For example, if you’re Drinkaware, you might want to think twice about bringing on Conor McGregor.

It needs to be someone with a genuine passion for your cause, who can speak authentically to the change you’re trying to make. A really great example would be Davina McCall for the Menopause Charity, which has done so much to put menopause on the map.

Investigating your chosen ambassador’s previous interviews and social media commentary is a crucial step. The last thing that you want is to partner with someone who has previously been critical of the sector you’re in or has a skeleton in their closet that could create a media firestorm, distracting from your work.

By knowing every possible detail about your celebrity ambassador prior to partnering, you are reducing the chance that you’ll be blindsided by sudden negative attention from the get-go.

Crisis planning

Assuming your chosen ambassador has passed the vetting process, you should still be prepared for things to go wrong. So often, as can be seen with the examples above, there is no way you could predict the scandal involving your ambassador, but this doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a crisis plan in place with multiple scenarios rehearsed in advance.

It never looks good when a brand is floundering around, flip-flopping on the line it is taking. A strong crisis planning procedure in place allows charities to act authoritatively and confidently when a negative story breaks. Distancing yourself from your ambassador can be a challenging, but important step. It isn’t one that should be rushed into though.

If you are looking to bring on a celebrity ambassador but are concerned about the potential risk involved, please do get in touch to discuss how these risks can be mitigated and crises weathered.

Get in touch with the team