Telethons tend to occur almost as suddenly as the catastrophic events that make them necessary.
Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, actor George Clooney helped to organize “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” which took place only days after the attacks and raised more than $100 million for various charities. In 2004, Clooney again helped to stage a telethon after the tsunami hit in South Asia. And after Hurricane Katrina, three major telethons were staged.
On Friday night, Clooney will host “Hope for Haiti,” which will air between 8-10 p.m. ET on several networks, including NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, CNN and others. It will feature stars such as Brad Pitt, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks, Morgan Freeman, Jon Stewart, Robert Pattinson and more, and musical performances from Madonna, Beyonce, Rihanna and others. The event will be hosted by Clooney in Los Angeles, Wyclef Jean in New York and Anderson Cooper in Haiti.
It doesn’t take much arm-twisting to get average citizens to make donations in the face of such tragedy. Yet the mere presence of celebrities can be particularly persuasive in generating money to the cause.
“It has a huge impact in terms of awareness,” said Atul Tandon, executive director of the international network and executive vice president of investor relations for United Way. “It brings a focus to what is happening, it brings the situation to the attention of the American public and the American people.”
Celebrity Cabinet helps out in times of need
The American Red Cross is one of the charities that will receive funds as a result of Friday’s telethon. Julie Thurmond Whitmer knows the drill. As director of celebrity and entertainment outreach for the American Red Cross, she has helped to form a cadre of celebrity volunteers who are ready at a moment’s notice to pitch in when disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti strike.
“The compassion of the American public, including those in the entertainment industry, is in abundance and in full force after a disaster like this,” Whitmer said. “We have what we call the National Celebrity Cabinet, which has 34 members. We reach out to them right after disasters to help us.
“We started that program in 2002. We started with 12 members, and it grew to what it is today. A lot of them have a personal connection to our cause. For instance, when Marlee Matlin was pregnant, she needed a blood transfusion. Because of her personal connection, she reached out to help us in our efforts to get people to donate blood. There is a story like that for the majority of the people involved in the Red Cross.”
Not all celebrities have universal appeal. Some, because of the movies or television shows they’ve been in, or their politics, or their personal lives, or some other reasons, might actually alienate viewers — in another context.
“My experience,” said the United Way’s Tandon, “is that the American people tend to give the benefit of the doubt. They appreciate when celebrities step forward and do things like this.”
Celebs must go overboard to show concern
Michael Musto writes for the Village Voice and frequently comments on popular culture for “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” He said although there is often a cynicism among certain viewers when entertainment figures are enlisted for high profile charitable endeavors, the bottom line is that most celebrities have the best intentions in situations such as Friday’s telethon.
“Celebrities are usually more responsive to crises than ordinary people because a spotlight is always on them, and if they act like they don’t care, the whole world knows about it,” he said. “So they have to go overboard to show their concern in a big, public way that generally involves pushing their way into cameras to show how much their hearts are bleeding.
“Fortunately, most of them really DO care, so it’s not that much of an act.”
And Musto said even if certain viewers at home can’t stand a particular celebrity, they’ll issue a temporary waiver for the greater good. “I think a telethon is an equalizing situation where even celebrities that you don’t care for come off with a sort of beatific glow because they’ve put themselves out there for a good cause,” he explained. “Maybe Tiger Woods should join the roster! And Charlie Sheen! And so many people! It will do wonders for their TVQ ratings.”
For right now, charities are simply concerned with money that can be raised by celebrities to help those in need in Haiti. But the ideal situation is to have celebrity involvement beyond the night of the telethon.
“We appreciate when they follow through,” Tandon said. “It doesn’t always stop with the telethon, but with the follow-up work.
“That is one of the toughest things. I’ve been doing this for a while, through numerous disasters. When the cameras roll away, keeping the public’s attention is the toughest thing. One of the best examples in the celebrity world is Bono. He went to Ethiopia in 1984 during the famine. He said it changed his life. To this day he continues to be very engaged in responding to disasters.”
Tandon said new media is one of the most effective ways to keep the ball rolling long after the telethon. He hopes celebrities continue to work the Internet through e-mail newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, and fan groups to keep the issue at the forefront.
Said Whitmer of the Red Cross: “There is a simple formula for celebrities: Generate media attention, which generates awareness, and that brings in donations.”
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. He lives in Los Angeles.