The USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism hosted Professor Ira Wagman of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada to discuss the origins and historical context of celebrity diplomacy.
Wagman, who teaches communication studies at the School of Journalism at Carleton University and is the Fulbright research chair for Canada, discussed how celebrity involvement in humanitarian issues has changed the practice of diplomacy.
Wagman opened the discussion with an introduction of the first celebrity diplomat Danny Kaye, an entertainer in the 1950s who visited Southeast Asia for children’s charities and became the first ambassador for UNICEF.
He spoke about how Hollywood in the post-war era was feeling the tumultuous effects of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the anti-communist sentiments of the public and the suspicions of the American government aimed towards the film industry.
Wagman said this drove the establishment of celebrity involvement in diplomatic affairs, enhancing the reputations of both the charity organizations and the celebrities. Wagman then discussed the public perception of celebrity diplomacy.
“I want to encourage a movement in the discussion about celebrity diplomacy away from the ‘help-or-hurt’ model in the way we think about celebrity diplomacy,” Wagman said.
Wagman also brought up questions of the effects of celebrity diplomacy and how the process ties into the public’s views on media technology.
“In a way, celebrity diplomacy brings up the issue of our deep ambivalences and anxieties that we feel about celebrities and media,” Wagman said.
Wagman also pointed out that because celebrities often have controversial opinions, the public does not necessarily view celebrity diplomacy in a positive light.
“I would like to think that there is a process in picking someone and that that person is going to contribute to the cause, but that’s not always the case,” Wagman said.
In terms of the effectiveness of celebrity diplomacy, Wagman brought up the question of just how much money celebrities donate.
“There are major issues with celebrity campaigns. We place an incredible emphasis on these people, but what does it do at the end of the day?” Wagman said.
Center of Public Diplomacy alumna Leah Rousseau, who now works at the Canadian Consulate of Los Angeles, attended the event and commented on the lasting effects of celebrity diplomacy.
“Do [celebrities] have any set goals for when they show up to these events? Bono can throw a charity concert, but that doesn’t have a lasting effect on the people attending it,” Rousseau said.
Rousseau also brought up other types of celebrity diplomacy, such as diplomatic discussions.
“George Clooney is much more of an advocacy type of celebrity because he isn’t trying to sell a product; he goes to the White House and talks about Sudan without needing to host a concert,” Rousseau said.
The idea of celebrities performing more charity efforts seemed constructive to many students who attended the event.
Jocelyn Coffin, a first-year graduate student studying public diplomacy, had a positive viewpoint on celebrities’ involvement in charities and other causes.
“I think there’s a lot of value in it as a tool of diplomacy, and I do think there’s a lot of positives and negatives associated with it,” Coffin said. “I think you have to go forward with it with a lot of caution, but I think it’s a good tool to use in targeting specific people for causes.”
Danielle Saroyan, a graduate student of public diplomacy, also appreciates the use of celebrity diplomacy as a way of publicizing charitable causes.
“I think it’s actually good that they use celebrities as a media tool to spread the word,” Saroyan said. “I think it’s a really effective media campaign.”