Charlie Sheen Makes the Case for Strong PR Support. Inadvertently.


If you’ve been living on Mars, you may have overlooked the media blitz of your fellow Martian now living on Earth. Perhaps you’ve been focusing instead on news of lesser importance, like figuring the correct spelling of Libyan dictator Moammer or Muammar Gadhafi, Gaddafi, Qaddafi, Khadafy, or Khadafi; frankly, I prefer to call him Colonel Mo.)

For the rest of us, it’s been hard to avoid the real-time train wreck that is Charlie Sheen.  (You’ve seen or read about them so I’m not going to include the ton of links here.)

I’ve been talking about the role of public relations in the age of social media quite a bit since a panel I moderated in Oct., including with a reporter and with students at a local university, where I guest lectured earlier this week. And the reason I broke the Charlie Sheen-free-zone I had tried to establish is because I
think Sheen’s rants support the case that publicists still play an important role in the lives of their clients, whether an actor or an organization.

Here are three things that Sheen’s meltdown can teach us:

  1. You may not notice a publicist’s behind-the-scenes work when things are going well, but you certainly can see the impact when there’s no guidance from a PR professional. A strong publicist is important to provide objective counsel on the types of program on which to appear and the tenor and nature of the comments one should consider making during those appearances.  Clearly, that’s not been happening here, leading to Sheen’s publicist quitting, saying he was “unable to work effectively” with Sheen — something of an understatement.  Lest you think it’s only an issue with Sheen, remember what Tom Cruise’s appearances were like after he replaced his publicist with his sister.
  2. You can lose good will and reputation quickly.  For nearly a decade, Sheen has been the lead actor in TV’s top-rated comedy, but in a matter of a week, Sheen has gone from delivering punch lines to being the punch line.
  3. It can take a long time to repair your reputation.  Just ask Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise.  At this point, Cruise has taken steps to rebuild his reputation, but he had been the top box office star for years, but that changed after he performed his own stunts on Oprah’s couch.  Meanwhile, as for Gibson, last night Letterman ran a segment that inter cut lines from Gibson’s taped phone calls with Sheen’s off-the-wall recent interviews.
  4. You can never underestimate the public’s interest in a celebrity meltdown. Sheen’s story is ubiquitous; it takes more effort to avoid it than to read, see, hear, talk or tweet about it. You might not realize it but there’s actually a lot of other news — some of it actually important with significant implications for us as a country — being crowded out by Sheen’s meltdown. For example, the state of the Arab world and their push against dictators; just because Mubarak has stepped down doesn’t mean story’s over.  But it’s now harder to find news about Egypt. There’s the possible budget showdown that, not surprisingly, has been postponed, along with the protests in Wisconsin. But Sheen, followed today by the news of the firing of Dior designer John Galliano, seem to fascinate people. You can’t ask why do people care; they just do.
  5. You can’t just wing it, you need a good story to tell, even if you’ve got a movie to plug. This lesson comes from an appearance last night of actress Amanda Seyfried on the Late Show with David Letterman.  Letterman’s never been a great interviewer but last night, Seyfried’s appearance came off as flat and unfunny. The lines she kept expecting to pay off with laughs never hit.  What’s perhaps interesting is that she had previously appeared on the Late Show just a few weeks earlier, and had done a much better job.  (In searching for Seyfried & Letterman, her prior appearance showed up first; the brief segment, below, was the comic highlight but doesn’t do much for her image.).  Last night, they didn’t have much to talk about, not even her upcoming movie.  The lesson this teaches is that you always need a plan and key messages for what you want to say. Even stars need to think ahead for their goal for any media appearance, and shaping that story is something a good publicist should do.

I know that entertainment PR is a specialized niche, but the lessons of Sheen’s meltdown are relevant to other parts of the PR world. And it helps make the case for getting good PR support ahead of time. Cleaning up after a disaster is always more complicated slogging than addressing issues before they turn into a crisis.

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