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."
You could imagine the appeal in a boardroom meeting: For the same reasons consumers pay attention to songs Alicia Keys sings or sings on, they’ll pay attention to BlackBerry more because she's 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—some of whom 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, should she also be at risk of getting laid off—or at least having her contract cut short—in an unprecedented time of 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. Creative directors, for example, not only have a wide variety of skills pertinent to the company but are responsible for fully comprehending huge ideas and then managing and motivating large teams to execute on those ideas. They get the glory, but they also shoulder blame. Representatives for Keys declined to detail her specific accomplishments. But in the wake of BlackBerry's struggles it's just as fair to question her duties as it is to question whether 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 designers, developers, and yes, even creative directors are worried about losing their jobs at BlackBerry, is the stable relationship with a different level of creative director going to be seen an insult to the 4,500 employees BlackBerry is actually about to can?
"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.)
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 bear any real weight in turning 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.
[Ed. Note: An earlier version of this story was edited to clarify several facts.]
[Image: AP Photo | John Raoux]