Comms guidance Partnerships

Partnering with celebrities and influencers: 5 tips from the OECD DevCom community

Influencer marketing is big business, but some public communicators think it is too risky. It need not be. Here are some great tips from our community of experts.

Featured photo: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Can Hollywood stars and makeup artists help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals? If you are an SDG communicator, then the answer is: Of course they can! Support from celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio or youtubers like Nikkietutorials can be a game changer for the SDGs. Celebrities can help us connect with huge audiences. Influencers can help us inspire citizens, create trends and change minds far outside our own filter bubbles. 

Celebrity marketing is nothing new. Advertisers have long collaborated with big-name stars to promote their products. In 1765, Josiah Wedgewood secured an endorsement from Queen Charlotte herself to be appointed as “Potter to her Majesty“. In the 1930s, baseball legend Babe Ruth endorsed a long list of brands. Today, influencer marketing has grown into a big and indispensable business, valued at around USD 15 billion dollars in 2022.

It is not surprising that most of this investment is spent online. Companies know that young audiences can no longer be reached with traditional advertising. In 2021, people spent an average of 142 minutes per day on social media, up 61% since 2012. Indeed, some people say that social is just an opening act of the so-called Metaverse, a highly immersive virtual world where people will meet to play games, socialize and work. People will increasingly live in between the digital and the real world.

In the digital world, anyone can be an influencer, not just the big movie stars. In fact, younger generations tend to be sceptical of anything too promotional, craving for more meaningful connections with authentic, trustable and relatable messengers. The trick is thus to figure out who can influence the audience you want to reach, and on which platforms they hang out.

In September 2021, the OECD DevCom community met to share lessons on Partnering with Celebrities, Influencers and the Entertainment Industry. We learned that several DevCom members have begun partnering with influencers and celebrities.

However, many DevCom members still hesitate to engage with celebrities. Public institutions can be risk averse. What if our partner for a biodiversity campaign is later photographed behaving in an environmentally destructive way? What if citizens claim that precious taxpayer dollars have been spent on a bad campaign?

These concerns are real: the marketing world abounds with examples of influencer campaigns gone wrong. See, for example, Pepsi’s failed attempt to appeal to socially-conscious millennials with an advertisement featuring supermodel Kendall Jenner.

Fortunately, we can learn from experience, minimize the risks of things going wrong and turn influencer campaigning into an effective part of an SDG communications strategy.

Based on our conversation with DevCom experts, here are 5 recommendations for SDG communicators thinking about partnering with celebrities or influencers

1. SET GOOD GOALS

You need to be clear and realistic about the goals of your campaign. For example, if you are setting out to promote the SDGs, then don’t also expect your influencer campaign to generate more followers or likes for your organisation’s social media accounts. Instead, measure the extent to which your content is reaching new audiences, and focus on the quality of conversations you are catalyzing about the SDGs.

Influencer marketing is also a great opportunity to listen and learn from new audiences: you will find new entry points for conversations about sustainable development, and ideas on how to frame your messages in future campaigns.

2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT MESSENGER

Your choice of messenger needs to reflect the goals of your campaign. Here is an overview of different types of influencers and what each one of them can bring to the table:

  • A-list celebrities. These messengers, highly familiar to a broad global public, will help your message travel far. For example, UN Messenger of Peace Leonardo DiCaprio reached 1.6 million views with his speech at the UN Climate Summit in 2014. However, partnering with the A-list requires a lot of time and money. Moreover, wealthy big-name celebrities are not always best suited to deliver messages about, say, sustainable consumption or global inequality.
  • Macro and Mega influencers: With between 500,000 and 1+ million followers each on social media, these are the influencers that set trends. They are great content producers, having often built their fame by sharing knowhow with a niche audience. Their followers respect them as trustworthy experts. They may be less costly to work with than A-list celebrities, but many of them still come with a heavy price tag that needs to be negotiated with their agents.
  • Micro influencers: These are influencers with fewer followers but high levels of credibility with specific audiences. Local influencers can help bring your message to places and communities that you could never reach alone. They interact with their followers, who often regard micro-influencers as their peers. Finding these influencers is not easy and requires you to go local. If you look carefully, they may already be engaging with your brand through hashtags or comments on your social media posts.
  • Your colleagues: If you arenot yet ready to workwith external influencers, then don’t forget that your colleagues may be your best asset! They can bring a human dimension to your communications, showing audiences what your organisation’s work looks like on a day-to-day basis. Empower your colleagues to become advocates, but remember that, like external partners, they need support and guidance.

At our DevCom event, participants agreed that, when choosing influencers, SDG communicators need to look well beyond numbers of followers and conduct a thorough vetting process of their potential partner. Nobody wants to have to cancel partnerships due to public scandals like the ones faced by make-up companies Sephora or Morphe.

3. KEEP IT AUTHENTIC

Most influencers have worked hard to build trust with their followers and, in that process, have developed a unique tone of voice and visual style. If they go “off-brand”, they will quickly come across as inauthentic and lose trust. So, while you may want your influencer to “stick to the script”, you also need them to “own” your message  and adapt it to their personal style. See what can happen when the message and medium don’t match.

Keeping it authentic means choosing the right influencer. It also means providing your influencer, who is often very busy and unfamiliar with the SDGs, with just the right kind of guidance and materials. Our DevCom experts suggested providing “layered” information: very short materials for those who want to grasp and share your message quickly; more details for those who want to read up on your issue. In all cases, it’s great to provide your partner with creative freedom to remain authentic: they know best what works for their audience.

4. CALL IN THE PROS

As we have seen, influencer marketing is a complex business with financial, legal and reputational pitfalls. That is why several of our DevCom experts hired professional agencies for support and were happy to have done so. Agencies have portfolios and contacts that can help you find the best partners; they can also manage the contractual relationships with partners. This is particularly important when influencer marketing targets younger audiences, where laws on privacy and content are particularly important and always changing.

5. PLAY THE LONG GAME

Like all relationships, successful partnerships with influencers can be hard work. So, if possible, don’t treat your partnership as a one-off exercise, but as a longer-term investment. The more familiar your partners become with your work, the better they will become at communicating your messages.


We hope you find the above advice useful. If you have your own experiences to share, then please get in touch. If you’re looking for more examples of celebrity partnerships in the DevCom community, then check out the list below. More generally, please visit our DevCom Toolkit for advice and ideas on how to partner in development communication.

Here are some resources to get by:

  • The Together for Learning campaignby Global Affairs Canada.
  • The Surprisingly Effective campaign by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland during the European Sustainable Development Week in 2019.
  • The #IchWillFair campaign by the Initiative for Sustainable Agricultural Supply Chains of the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ).
  • The partnership between YouTuber Nikkie de Jager and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • Big Ideas, a series of essays led by the European Investment Bank.
  • The #ActNow campaign by the UN, and its partnership with Connor Franta, Leonardo DiCaprio and the Smurfs.

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