If a Celebrity Speaks Out, Does Anyone Listen? Nowadays, all sorts of celebrities and public figures are taking on causes all over the world ... But when Paris Hilton goes to Rwanda or Jenna Bush writes a book on HIV, does it really do anything to change public awareness of these issues?

If a Celebrity Speaks Out, Does Anyone Listen?

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So when Jenna writes about HIV in Panama or Madonna adopts a child in Malawi or Bono lobbies for debt relief in Africa, do people actually pay attention?

Here is NPR's Alex Cohen.

ALEX COHEN: Next month, after Paris Hilton wraps up her new movie, "Repo! The Genetic Opera," she'll head to Rwanda. The charitable move comes after her brief stint in jail for drunk driving, after which she told Larry King that she wanted to use her celebrity status for good.

(Soundbite of show, "Larry King Live")

Ms. PARIS HILTON (Heiress): I feel like, you know, being in the spotlight, I have a platform where I can raise awareness for so many great causes, and just do so much with this, you know, superficial things like going out. I want to help raise money for kids and for breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. And my last...

Mr. LARRY KING (Host, "Larry King Live"): So, you're going to get involved in all of this?

Ms. HILTON: Yes.

Ms. ROBIN BRONK (Executive Director, The Creative Coalition): My first question is, what she is doing in Rwanda? Is she Rwandan? And I don't think so.

COHEN: Robin Bronk is the executive director of The Creative Coalition, a group of artists and celebrities that lobbies on behalf of various causes. She says stars can influence the public because when they speak out, there's a good chance that the media will cover it.

Unidentified Man: Madonna is the latest in the string of celebrities including Angelina Jolie and Meg Ryan to adopt an overseas baby.

COHEN: And that coverage pretty much guarantees people will see it and, for a moment, have no choice but to think about adoption, famine, global warming, AIDS.

But Robin Bronk says whether a person pays more attention to the cause discussed or to the outfit the star is wearing will depend largely on two factors: how the media is covering it, and the connection the star has to the cause.

Ms. BRONK: You have to do a sniff test, which means are you personally invested in this issue? Can you step up to the plate and be able to talk intellectually and with emotions about the issue?

COHEN: Case in point: when after Michael J. Fox talks about a disease he actually has...

Mr. MICHAEL J. FOX (Actor): Parkinson's is a degenerative disease. Over time the symptoms get worse.

COHEN: The public is likely to want to learn more. But if they see a supermodel who looks like she hasn't eaten a carb in a decade talking about starving children in Africa, the message may not do much, which is why groups like The Creative Coalition work with celebrities to make sure they're up to speed on an issue before they speak out. It's an investment that can pay off - literally, says Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Ms. STACY PALMER (Editor, The Chronicle of Philanthropy): People want to be like celebrities just in the same way they might think about buying the same clothes that a celebrity is wearing. They also think about giving to the same kinds of causes.

COHEN: But, Palmer says, here's something to think about: Does a celebrity just talk the talk, or do they actually contribute more than just a few moments on "Entertainment Tonight"?

Even with so many stars taking on various causes lately, only one actually donated enough to make it on to The Chronicles list of America's most generous donors last year. That would be Oprah Winfrey. No surprise, then, Oprah came in second on a recent survey listing the most affective celebrities for charitable causes. And who is the number 1?

(Soundbite of song, "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby")

Mr. JERRY LEWIS (Singer): (Singing) A million baby kisses I'll deliver...

COHEN: That title would belong to Jerry Lewis, who's been raising money for muscular dystrophy since long before Paris Hilton was even born.

Alex Cohen, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby")

Mr. LEWIS: (Singing) ...with a Dixie melody.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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