“Bob Geldof’s Progressive PR Skills Were Alive With The Sound Of Live Aid”

“Bob Geldof’s Progressive PR Skills Were Alive With The Sound Of Live Aid”

In 1984, after watching a ten-minute BBC news report about a horrific famine in war-torn Ethiopia, the Irish rock musician Robert Frederick Zenon Geldof decided that he just had to travel there; and what he witnessed changed his life.

It’s hard to imagine now, but the civil war in Ethiopia was the longest-running war of the 20th century, and not only had fighting displaced millions of people from their homes, it also left 30 million people directly affected by famine. At this stage, the famine had killed hundreds of thousands of people, and it was expected to kill millions more.

Bob once said in an interview “There was a town in northern Ethiopia, where literally hundreds of thousands of people just sat down to die. It still resonates with me, and I sat there, very disturbed, and my wife had tears in her eyes. We just had had a little girl, and I was outraged by what I saw.  I thought it’s not enough to put a pound in the charity box. This requires something of the self.”

To help the starving in Africa, Geldof decided to assemble a group of pop and rock stars to record a Christmas single written by himself and Ultravox singer Midge Ure, which was released on 3rd December 1984. It was the best-selling single in Britain to that date and raised more than $10 million.

Live Aid Concert Stage (Photo by Jacques M. Chenet/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The crisis continued in Ethiopia, and with neighbouring Sudan also stricken with famine, Bob wanted to raise more money and increase awareness for the situation, so he suggested creating a super concert. In just ten weeks, Live Aid was staged, and the line-up featured more than 75 acts.

Almost everyone in the eighties who witnessed the event, which took place simultaneously at in London and Philadelphia, no doubt understands just how impressive and momentous the double event was. Let’s drill down on some details here.

The “superconcert” lasted for a total of 16 hours, was globally linked by satellite to 95% of the televisions on earth, to 1.2 billion viewers in 110 nations. And during the broadcast, over 40 of those nations held live telethons to raise more money. This was the most ambitious rock concert of its time. The Guardian, has even labelled Live Aid as being “the prototype for a new style of celebrity activism – from Richard Gere campaigning for Tibet to the benefit concerts for the Asian tsunami.”

Impressive, right? So how did he manage to do this?

Progressive PR

Bob Geldof engaged his attention and energy on the publics he knew he would need to affect change i.e., government agencies, private philanthropists, the performers that participated to both the single and the concert, and the general public.

(Photo by Staff/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Famous people have a long history of political involvement (even The Rock couldn’t stop himself) and using music culture and media together to promote social awareness is not a new concept either. Bob Geldof used the power of music to engage his audience and managed to convince millions of individuals across the globe to care about people living an existence so far removed from their own norms, values and beliefs.

The famine had already been picked up by the mainstream media for a few years before Bob created Live Aid, so there was a lot of footage in existence, and this enabled Bob to use these videos to influence high-profile entertainers to commit to a project of this type. From this, many of the ‘high-profile famous publics’ travelled to the affected areas to record a series of videos which provided the visual evidence and encouraged the millions of viewers to donate.  Geldof, according to PR Distribution, in many ways, “wrote the manual on PR for progressive projects”. He even managed to get Phil Collins to play one set in London before jetting on a Concorde over to New York to play his solo set.

Nowadays, using ‘intense’ imagery has become synonymous with internet and television charity appeals, however in 1985, it was an innovative decision. During the concert, after David Bowie’s set, a short video was played on the large screen, which highlighted the horrendous conditions the people of Africa were living in. The pictures of the starving children shocked both the crowds at the live gigs, and the rest of the world. As soon as the film ended, the donations came in at over £20k every 60 seconds. Nothing like this had ever been witnessed before and this response from the public ensured the image formula would be used many times over. 

Poignantly, Bob Geldof believes something like Live Aid could never happen now. In a recent interview for CBC he suggests that music is no longer the central spine of our culture, as it was then, so using music as the instrument of change is no longer conceivable. 

He says “The web has broken down the world into individualism and that’s easy for authoritarians to use. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be Greta Thunberg and stand in front of your school silently and just say no. That’s still there. The possibility to steer your world in the direction you need to live in, that’s there, but it ain’t this cyber wanking into the digital void.”

He continues “We’ve reduced ourselves. The 21st century is reductionist and it’s using the great tool of reductionism, the Internet, and we need to know how to use this thing, which is the most powerful tool ever invented.”

Geldof may or may not have known then that he was a trailblazer for progressive PR, but one thing is for sure, he is a genuinely compassionate human.

In a recent interview he said, “to die of want in a world of surplus is not only intellectually absurd but is economically illiterate and, of course, morally repulsive.”

And whether you like him or loathe him, it is hard to argue with that.

Gary Gates is a final year BSc Communication Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. He can be found on: LinkedIn – Gary Gates

Celebrities, social opinion, and the political sphere.

Celebrities, social opinion, and the political sphere.

For added support, just chuck a ‘Rock’ at it.

Years ago, before the introduction of social media, we all relied on the information provided to us by media outlets like television, tabloid, newspapers, radio and the like to help us understand the world and form our opinions. In the present day, the reliance on these regulated forms of media may still be important in the formation of public opinion, particularly with the older generations, however it appears that social media has introduced an immediate two-way conversation between celebrities and their fans that never existed until recently; a type of democratisation of a fan club in real-time.

Celebrities crossing over from their usual world of popularity into the political sphere to use their huge fan-base to help influence the outcome of an upcoming election or even to simply make a political statement, is not uncommon.

Marlon Brando in 1973, was nominated for Best Actor for his performance in The Godfather. In his stead, he sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather. In protest against the long-standing failure for the USA to honour the treaties it had made with Native American nations and as a proclamation against the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans in TV and film, she refused the award on Marlon’s behalf. Before this, politics had been pretty much left out of the Oscars, and worryingly for The Academy, on the night, Sacheen’s words were met with a mixture of booing and applause.

This show of ‘political shenanigans’ prompted the Academy, who were fearing a PR disaster, to ban any future award recipients from sending proxies on their behalf. There have been many other occasions where outside politics have taken centre stage at the Oscars. Who can forget Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon in 1993, and the fine performance of Michael Moore in 2003. Yes, not exactly politics as such, but certainly showing how one human can have a strong influence on matters.

Meanwhile in politics

In 1966, an actor who starred in such films as ‘The Bad Man’ called Ronald Regan was elected Governor of California and later became the President of the United States. Moving through the years, in 2008, Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney openly and loudly endorsed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign; as of yet, neither of them have opted run for President, but who knows? During the same campaign, American musician Hank Williams Jr chose to write a song, endorsing Senator John McCain’s campaign.

Chucking A ‘Rock’ At The Election

Recently, on Sunday, Sept. 27 2020, The Rock, a man who certainly knows how to spin his own PR, decided to post a video on Instagram that was far different from anything he had posted before. In his own words, “it expressed a message near and dear to my heart”. He wanted his followers “to vote blue in the 2020 election”. So with an audience of 190 million, he officially endorsed former VP Joe Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris.  

His caption read “As a political independent and centrist for many years, I’ve voted for Democrats in the past and as well as Republican. In this critical election, I believe Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the best to lead our country, and as my first ever (public) Presidential endorsement, I proudly endorse them for the presidential office of our United States.” At the time of the post, The Rock had 198 million followers on Instagram, and with him rumoured to earn up to $1 million per sponsored Instagram post, he has a lot sway in the world of social media.

“it expressed a message near and dear to my heart”

Prior to this post, when The Rock posted content, his millions of adoring fans would applaud him with nothing but kind words and platitudes, however this post changed everything.

A Rolling Rock Obviously Gathers No Moss

Many Trump fans took to his account to leave their comments of dislike, and to praise their man-child of a President. Did it harm his account?

Actually no. It has grown even more, to well over 200 million. So exactly how can we define that success? In votes? In followers? Just how influential was his message in shaping the political landscape? It is near impossible to measure. It’s not like there are statisticians standing outside each polling station waiting to ask every voter questions like “which celebrity influenced your vote”?

Public attitudes.

A recent study by the YouGov-Cambridge Centre concluded that only 14% of British voters think social media is good for society.

In the same study it shows clearly that many voters actually doubt the internet has been positive for political campaigning.

According to another recent study, the USA public attitudes toward political engagement on social media are equally as eye-opening. 42% get involved online with social or political issues that are important to them, while 37% feel that social media offers a place to express their political opinions.

I am not writing this with the suggestion that celebrities should be left out of all political discourse, however I do feel that in a world where celebrities with huge social media reach are role models and supposed policy experts, there is no limit to just much they can influence the shaping of public opinion; particularly with Generation Z.

What about the older citizens? Could older generations start using social media as an online activism tool?  Professor Jen Shradie suggests “Online activism was supposed to be a utopian dream. Rather than rely on big institutions, everyone’s voices were supposed to be heard,” she says. She goes on to suggest that online activism tends to attract the younger generations to engage, not to mention the better educated; and those with the technology and communication skills do tend to get their point across to win online arguments. After all, older generations obviously hold opinions, but many of these may not be getting captured online.

It’s voting time

So, could politically uneducated, yet powerfully influential PR astute celebrities like The Rock be seen as being a potentially dangerous combination in the overall process of forming social opinion within the political sphere? Perhaps, this is a conversation we should be engaging in more often.

Gary Gates is a final year BSc Communication Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. He can be found on: LinkedIn – Gary Gates