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.

ABC News/Reuters
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.
Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi sat for an interview with the Turkish TV channel TRT , in Tripoli, Libya, on March 8. The embattled leader has tried to use media to deny the impact of Libyan rebels.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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