BlackBerry, the struggling smartphone–maker, recently reported a nearly $1 billion quarterly loss and announced that it would be shedding 40% of its workforce as it explores a possible sale of the company. That means roughly 4,500 employees are now at risk of losing their jobs––but don't worry about its most famous one, whose weighty title remains secure: "I can confirm that Alicia [Keys] is still working with BlackBerry in her role of creative director," a BlackBerry spokesperson says.
In January, BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins appointed the R&B superstar to her new role at the company. Keys promised that her work for BlackBerry would amount to more than just a traditional celebrity endorsement; Heins insisted that Keys was actually "hired for a job." But BlackBerry, like its embrace of apps and touch–screen devices, was following rather than leading: It was replicating what many tech giants have done in recent years, framing celebrity spokespeople as executives actually bringing their creativity energy to the company's core. In 2010, Lady Gaga was named a creative director at Polaroid; Will.i.am was appointed Intel's director of creative innovation in 2011; and only last week, Lenovo "hired" Ashton Kutcher––the lovable doofus on That '70s Show turned angel investor––as an "engineer."
In an age of fake celebrity hiring, does a company have any obligation toward carrying out a real celebrity firing?
You can see the appeal in a boardroom meeting: If consumers trust a Jay–Z song because Alicia Keys contributed to it, they'll trust BlackBerry more by knowing that Keys contributed to its output too. And even if consumers don't believe the celebrity is doing an actual job, it's not like the positioning can do harm, right?
But now that BlackBerry is actually laying off thousands of employees––employees who are actually responsible for the tasks that Keys has claimed to oversee––the company seems to find itself in a trap of its own making.
Keys once described her role this way: "It's a big job...I'm going to work closely with the app designers, developers, content creators, the retailers, the carriers to really explore the platform and create ideas for its future." But if Keys was actually hired to do this job, as a real exec responsible for these myriad tasks, should she also be at risk of getting laid off, given the company's poor performance? In an age of fake celebrity hiring, does a company have any obligation toward carrying out a real celebrity firing?
For now, despite the hard times, BlackBerry is sticking with its creative director. "As an advocate for BlackBerry, Alicia Keys has helped drive engagement with BlackBerry through her vast network," the BlackBerry spokesperson explains. "With her creative direction, our Keep Moving Project delivered a reach of over 40 million visits. Alicia has also advocated for females in STEM and fostered our BlackBerry Scholars Program."
It sounds like honest work: Generally promoting the brand through media, charitable, and social initiatives is what Keys and all her celebrity executive peers really do when they work for brands, whether it's Gwen Stefani at HP or Leonardo DiCaprio at Mobli.
But it's not fair to artificially inflate their responsibilities. Has Keys really worked with carriers? Is she locking in telecom deals with China Mobile or Vodafone? Representatives for Keys declined to detail her specific accomplishments. But the obvious truth is that Keys is no more locking in carrier deals at BlackBerry than Kutcher is going to be working on Node.js as an engineer at Lenovo.
As it proceeds with its layoffs, BlackBerry's relationship with Keys will be worth watching––not for what it says about celebrity endorsements, but for what it says about how celebrity "jobs" affect the morale of people who actually must show up at the office every day. As real designers, developers, and yes, even creative directors are worried about losing their jobs at BlackBerry, is the stable relationship with this un–layoffable creative director going to be seen an insult to the 4,500 employees BlackBerry is actually about to can? And how will consumers view BlackBerry as an innovator when it's willing to keep up the charade of its celebrity hire so she can do a fake job, rather than try to retain its own employees so they can do their real jobs?
"Commenting on org structure is out of my sphere," the BlackBerry spokesperson said, when asked whether Keys could be one of the thousands let go. (Reps for Keys declined to comment.)
Companies should think twice about pushing this corporate–celebrity dynamic further, as it has the potential of becoming only more awkward and inauthentic, especially as brands continue to head down this rabbit hole of making celebrity exec titles sound more "real." I'm half–expecting Toshiba to hire Colin Farrell next as a MySQL site reliability engineer and Linux system administrator.
Ironically, if anything, Keys probably wants to be released from her obligations toward (contractually) supporting the BlackBerry brand. We're not trying to pick on Keys here; it's obviously not her fault that BlackBerry poorly bungled its lead in the mobile market. She just made a bad bet on a sinking brand––it was arguably a fool's errand for her to think she could help turn the company around at this late point.
But if she and BlackBerry want to act as if she's really a creative director––and thus really working with carriers, app designers, developers, and retailers, as she and Thorsten Heins boasted––then Keys can't simply claim credit for her role went it's in her favor, and deny responsibility when it's not.
That, for Heins and average workers at least, is usually a fireable offense.
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