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Why Charlie Sheen and Muammar Qaddafi aren’t winning the media

The cases of Charlie Sheen and Muammar Qaddafi underscore what analysts say: Media's role is to tell and sell, and not to assist with brand management.

By Staff writer / March 18, 2011

Actor Charlie Sheen spoke with Andrea Canning of ABC News in Los Angeles on Feb. 26 as part of a media blitz against his employer, CBS.

ABC News/Reuters

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Los Angeles

As unlikely as it seems, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi and Holly-wood's Charlie Sheen have at least one thing in common: Both have turned to mass media in times of travail in a bid to win hearts and minds.

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In the wake of Thursday's United Nations no-fly zone resolution, Mr. Qaddafi corralled reporters to loudly announce a cease-fire, even as his troops reportedly continued to fight rebel forces. Last week, Following days of tweet blasts and ubiquitous tabloid headlines, Mr. Sheen announced his Violent Torpedo of Truth Tour, which will take his message from the social media and talk show circuit to 19 cities.

The strongman and the actor represent, perhaps, two ends of a wide spectrum of public figures who are accustomed to manipulating the media to their own ends, failing to realize that media coverage can just as easily lead to a fall as it can to limelight and adulation.

Mass media have long been uncompromising about showing people in a raw and unvarnished light. Just ask Richard Nixon, whose 5 o'clock shadow and sweaty skin during a televised debate with John Kennedy hurt his 1960 presidential bid, or Gary Hart, the Oval Office hopeful whose 1987 denials of an extramarital affair rang false in the face of subsequent news photos to the contrary. But today's proliferation of media online – in the form of social media and citizen journalists with video cellphones – creates so much more opportunity for public figures to be shown for who they actually are, in spite of any efforts to portray themselves differently, say media watchers and public relations specialists.

Still, mass media remain catnip for celebrities and public figures, particularly for autocrats such as Mr. Qaddafi or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, because that's how they have controlled and influenced people or fans, writes Rosanna Fiske of the Public Relations Society of America, in an e-mail.

"This also leads some public figures to believe that they are media darlings, meaning the media loves them, which often isn't the case at all."

That may help explain why Qaddafi late last month told three hand-chosen reporters that Libya was trouble-free – even as a flood of other news reports presented irrefutable evidence of fierce battles between rebels and pro-Qaddafi forces. And why Mr. Sheen, whose bad-boy antics and addiction struggles are legendary, continues his multimedia blitz, including a March 7 "news conference" from atop a building in downtown Los Angeles while waving a machete, and a webcast tirade against the studio and production firm that fired him.

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