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.
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The two have plenty of company when it comes to media miscalculation. Consider Mr. Mubarak, whose rambling speech the night before he stepped down as president left most who heard it either enraged or scratching their heads. And don't forget former BP chief Tony Hayward, who in the midst of coping with efforts to stop a massive oil spill last summer, snapped to a reporter that "I'd like my life back" – and came to regret it.Skip to next paragraph
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No matter how close an ally the media may have seemed in better days, the media's job is to tell – and sell – a good story, not protect the character at the center of it, say "brand" guardians and PR experts. The worst move public figures can make in a tight spot is to expect that they can tap the media to help them get out of it, says crisis management specialist Richard Levick, president of Levick Strategies. His case in point: home-styling diva Martha Stewart.
"She built her brand on an uncompromising stubbornness," he says. But when federal investigators came knocking at her door asking about circumstances surrounding an especially advantageous stock trade, "that was precisely the wrong attitude to take in making her case to her public. She came off as arrogant, and her brand was severely tarnished."
Former ABC newswoman Karen Friedman says public figures need to step back and realize that the media have never been a tool they could control.
This is more true than ever in the age of citizen journalism, adds Ms. Friedman. As social media like Facebook and Twitter amass vast amounts of personal information on public figures, they have "become the new paparazzi," she says.
For dangerous fallout, look no further than Rep. Christopher Lee (R) of New York. His political career ended abruptly last month after a gossip blog reprinted an e-mail that the married congressman had sent to a woman (along with a photo of himself, shirtless) who had posted a singles ad on Craigslist. "What happens behind closed doors stays on Google forever," warns Friedman.
The proliferation of unedited or barely edited content on social media and other online venues means that "there are so many more ways to ruin a career," adds media adviser Stacie Paxton at Hill & Knowlton, a communications consulting firm.
Even in traditional news outlets, the line between entertainment and news is dissolving, amid pressure to remain financially solvent. "The lines between traditional and tabloid journalism are pretty blurred," says David Shumway, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.