White saviour row strikes at the heart of influencer relations

When Labour MP David Lammy tweeted: “The world does not need any more white saviours” in response to an Instagram picture posted by documentary maker Stacey Dooley of her holding a young Ugandan child, it unleashed a row about whether charities need to change their approach to influencer relations. Here six experts weigh in on the issue.

Scott Guthrie is a management consultant. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to generate meaningful results from smarter influencer marketing decisions:

“Comic Relief learned the hard way the difference between celebrity endorsement and influencer relations back in 2017. Films fronted by actors Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hardy and flame-haired, pop star Ed Sheeran were widely slammed as poverty porn when they aired.

“For Redmayne, Hardy and Sheeran influence is a by-product of their fame earned through acting and music. There is no doubt their intentions were beyond reproach. But their subject matter expertise does not lie in sub Saharan Africa. Instead they lent only their fame to promoting Comic Relief and its good causes.

“The recruitment of Stacey Dooley to front a Comic Relief documentary in Uganda appeared to show the charity had learned some lessons. Dooley is a journalist, TV presenter and documentary filmmaker. She has made social-issue-themed documentaries for BBC 3 for the past decade addressing challenging issues such as sweat shops in the fashion industry, people trafficking and child soldiers.

“However, whilst Dooley investigates issues affecting young people around the world she is best known for winning the most recent series of Strictly Come Dancing.

“The shame about the Stacey Dooley / David Lammy social media blow-up is that it centres on two ill-judged Instagram images of her holding a small child rather than the content of her yet-to-be-aired documentary.

“Our decisions are shaped, as consumers, by people who are credible and relevant to the problem we’re trying to solve – or opportunity we’re trying to grasp. We turn to an influencer’s experience to form our evidence. We place celebrities on pedestals whilst influencers we believe are people like us – relatable. Being popular isn’t the same as being influential. That’s down to credibility and context.

“Successful influencer relations campaigns follow guardrails laid down in a creative brief. These guides will explain the creative style guide, the tone of voice, key messages, the call to action. The brief will outline the no-go areas, too. This section might include avoiding depicting images which could be perceived as poverty porn or a distorted image of the continent. So, let’s save our judgement for both Comic Relief and Dooley for after we’ve watched the documentary.”

Ellie Waddington is a politics student at Leeds Beckett and charity volunteer, having spent time helping communities in Costa Rica:

“The white saviour argument when it comes to charity work is a very tricky one but Stacey Dooley seems to have become the face of a problem much bigger than herself. When dozens of celebrities are sent off to promote charities such as Comic Relief every year, it seems unfair that she has become the scapegoat.

“Volun-tourism can be extremely problematic, and it’s easy to see how it can be perceived as an issue of them and us. However, I think it’s so important to examine the intention behind the work. Comic Relief do an incredible job at raising money, and carry out long term, sustainable projects that really do make a difference, so demonising all the work that they do seems completely counterproductive.”

Katrina Marshall is journalist and communications specialist who writes on issues surrounding diversity and inclusion; social justice and public relations:

“I still do a double take when news stories or advertisements flash images of gleaming skyscrapers and bustling cities in Nigeria or South Africa. Educated in Barbados and the UK and with a firm grasp on the narratives and counter narratives of their shared colonial past, one would think those images would register as ‘normal’ in my head. I’m embarrassed to say they still don’t.

“This single admission explains much of the problematic ‘white saviour’ storyline of the continent’s relationship with aid and relief efforts. That drip-fed message I was subconsciously fed as a child – that famine, war and corruption (played out to the soundtrack of “We Are the World”) is all Africa is – robs its citizens of a voice in the shaping of their own image. An image that also includes resourcefulness, ingenuity and triumph.

“The parade of white, Western pop stars who headline well-meaning aid efforts like Comic Relief in Africa are at the core of what acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story”. The desire to help impoverished nations by using well known figures to motivate the public to raise funds for charity is overall a good thing.  That is understood.  But we are now as a country too multi-cultural; too advanced in our discussions dismantling our relationship with race, culture and colonialism to be so tone deaf in our execution.

“The late BBC broadcaster Ghanaian Komla Dumor was described as having considerable influence on how the continent was covered. South African comic and host of America’s The Daily Show, Trevor Noah, has set up a foundation in Johannesburg to provide educational tools and training to vulnerable youth. Both have global platforms. Both are influencers on a scale far larger than Strictly’s new blue-eyed girl Stacey Dooley. Yet it is she who has offended the Ugandan High Commissioner, His Excellency Julius Peter Moto with her social media snaps of a nameless, almost expressionless Ugandan child on her hip on a recent ‘charity trip’ there. It is she who has reduced this polarizing and complex issue to a Twitter beef with David Lammy MP. Simply because he dared Dooley and others to do better than perpetuate this single story.

“The good intentions of people of all colours and backgrounds can live comfortably and profitably alongside more conscious, dignified approaches to charity work. They can certainly do better than Dooley’s simplistic rebuttal: ‘why don’t you go do it David?’.”

Karan Chadda is a digital communications specialist within financial services:

“Stacey Dooley’s crass Instagram post was the lightning rod, but this storm was caused by Comic Relief’s continued reliance on sending celebrities to Africa to produce broadcasts that play to the worst stereotypes of a diverse continent.

“We could talk about the importance of due diligence, of checking what influencers do across all their channels and the need to draw up strong contracts, but patronising and reductive photos are hard to plan for. What brands must plan for, however, is the inevitable attacks from people who disagree with them. And these days there’s no shortage of opinions or platforms to share them (my contribution here being an obvious example).

“Comic Relief’s defence deflects the charge by pointing to the vast amount of money it has raised for good causes. And ultimately, its videos are produced to open wallets. It is a solid defence and, although unlikely to win over its critics, it will have had many people nodding in agreement.”

Ronke Lawal is the London based founder of Ariatu PR, a PR consultancy working with Lifestyle and FMCG brands and entrepreneurs:

“Altruism has never been a bad thing – in fact it is the basic foundation of a peaceful and compassionate society. Charity work is often a physical representation of our altruism at times of need. But human nature often means that charity work can become overshadowed by our desire to be praised and our egos to be stroked because of that physical representation.

“This seems to be particularly prevalent when it comes to big charities who use celebrity star power to draw attention to their causes. A combination of a captive audience and the desire to be seen to be doing good means that celebrities placed in the positions of brand ambassadorship can sometimes come across as insincere and self serving. Their intentions are good but their lack of sensitivity can serve to reinforce negative stereotypes of the very people they are supposed to be helping.

“In the case of Stacey Dooley and Comic Relief her image was one of many images used by celebrities which look innocent but have a negative impact through the persistent degradation of African bodies, specifically Black African bodies.

“African bodies are often used as props without agency or dignity – we see this in plenty of charity adverts and across mainstream media. The purpose is, of course, to evoke a reaction, an emotional draw that will encourage people to donate as much as possible. But there is a lasting impact of images like this particularly as they do not reflect change or empowerment. It would be deemed inappropriate if celebrities took selfies with poor white children in estates across the UK (given that in the UK child poverty is reaching record highs).

“Nobody denies that there is a need for charity work and aid serves a purpose but it has become synonymous with powerlessness in a way that undermines the positive outcomes of the work that is done. The historical legacy of colonialism may not be shared in British schools but images like the one shared by Stacey Dooley teach people that Africa needs to be saved and looked after. Images and words mean things, they leave a lasting impression on audiences and society as a whole and charities like Comic Relief should be more mindful of the tactics used to draw attention to the causes that it wishes to help.”

Marcel Klebba is account executive at global comms agency Metia. He blogs at MK, Vuelio’s top 10 PR blog 2019:

“We have to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who goes extra mile to help others. But I completely disagree with the execution of the post. The caption is not right. We live in the Instagram era, where we’re all ‘obsessed’ with the picturesque sunset, a new dress or a shiny pair of sneakers. We sometimes forget about how Instagram culture changes us and how we start perceiving things. We constantly look out for the Insta-worthy shots.

“It sounds obvious, but public figures have to watch what they post and they need to be aware of the repercussions.

“A few questions arise in this particular case. Should brands be even tighter when choosing who will represent them across social platforms? Should they be providing some sort of training and clearly defined messaging? What are some of the do’s, don’ts and what does a successful campaign on social look like?

“I don’t need to say that the influencer marketing, when executed well, can be a great tool. But when influencers, even with the best intentions, don’t get something right, it can be a real burden for brands.”

Image: Stacey Dooley/Instagram

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