What should you do when a celebrity ‘influencer’ becomes toxic?

As Speedo, Ralph Lauren and other sponsors recently found out, having a sponsorship deal with an athlete or other public figure isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be. Here’s what you can learn from the situation.

As buzz from Rio’s Olympic Games is dying down, the news from the world of celebrity “influencers” continues to heat up.

On Monday, Speedo USA announced it was ending its relationship with swimmer Ryan Lochte. Ralph Lauren, Syneron Candela and Airweave also terminated their sponsorship deals with Lochte.

Speedo’s announcement read, in part:

While we have enjoyed a winning relationship with Ryan for over a decade and he has been an important member of the Speedo team, we cannot condone behavior that is counter to the values this brand has long stood for.

A story that went awry

Lochte and three other American swimmers allegedly vandalized a gas station in Rio during the Olympic Games . At best, Lochte completely “over-exaggerated” when said that he and his teammates were robbed at gunpoint. At worst, he flat-out lied to everybody, from his mom to Brazilian police and members of the United States Olympic Committee.

That bad situation only gets worse when you consider how it must feel for Brazilians. Many residents were already sensitive about what the Olympic games spotlighted about their country.

Though some people have taken a “boys will be boys” attitude about the whole affair—at 32, Lochte is hardly a kid.

Learning from Lochte’s downfall

Lochte’s loss of roughly $1 million in endorsement deals gives PR and marketing pros an important reminder about “influencer” relations—specifically when working with celebrities.

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Brand managers often think that “influencer relations” means “pay big money for a celebrity endorsement and walk away happy.” However, partnering with public figures, celebrities and other influential social media users is always risky. That’s the point of their influence: You don’t control them.

The very appeal of a partnership with an “influencer”—from celebrities to bloggers—is that they are real people with strengths and weaknesses. These partners don’t sound (or act) like your marketing department—and that is what makes them influential.

However, that also means that these partners can behave in bone-headed ways. You have to be prepared to deal with it. Watching a celebrity partner create an internationally stupid misstep is unfortunately a common scenario. Who doesn’t remember Olympic golden-boy Michael Phelps’s bong problem a few years back?

Thinking outside of the sponsorship box

This is also a good time to bring up another reminder: Celebrity “influencers” aren’t the only way to boost brand awareness.

Instead, think beyond sponsorships. As Amy Rohn and Todd LaBeau recently talked about on the LSB Marketing Toddcast, there are many highly effective ways to use influential social media users and consumers to help your organization. Many of these tactics don’t involve million-dollar deals with athletes and other celebrities.

“Influencer” relations can be anything from giveaway sponsorships with YouTube users who have large followings to collaborations with popular content creators. Work with people who already have a passion for your organization.

Regardless of how you partner with influential social media users, public figures and celebrities, think about with whom you really want to align your brand. Ask yourself:

  • Does he or she have the right kind of influence?
  • Is his or her audience a good fit?
  • Does he or she have a history of making poor-decisions?

It’s also important to have a backup plan ready, in case that bad-boy celebrity “influencer” acts in a way that crosses the line from questionable to unacceptable.

Eleanor Pierce is the Digital Content Manager at Lindsay, Stone & Briggs. A version of this article originally appeared on the LSB Blog.

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Topics: PR

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