Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Solving the Charlie Sheen Riddle

In case you haven't noticed, there's been a bit of a buzz the past week or so about an actor with a rich acting family tradition and a list of movie and television hits to his own credit.  You might have heard of him.  His name is Charlie Sheen and he's apparently composed of tiger blood and adonis DNA.

Now, if you're like most people, you're probably a bit fed up with the all-Sheen-all-the-time coverage on what seems to be every television station across the cable dial.  He's been interviewed, quoted, mocked, been the butt of late night talk show jokes and he's been burning up Facebook and Twitter like a mid-summer wildfire on drought-ridden Colorado mountain.  In other words, it feels a bit out of control.  You want to avoid it.  You try to ignore it.  But it's everywhere...you just can't.
Chicks, money, drugs...Duh...WINNING!

We all know some folks who've actually tried to stay above the fray.  And yet, one-by-one they fall.  Just today, I ran across two Facebook posts from friends who finally gave in and posted something about the Sheen-ster. 

The problem is, it's just so invasive.  No matter what you do, you simply can't get away from the hurricane that has become Charlie Sheen coverage.  It's part of the national consciousness by now and it's not only THE conversation that people are having, it's become a cultural, nearly iconic monster.

Yes, it's insane, it's confusing, it's infuriating.  But from a PR standpoint, there is a lesson to be learned from all of this, and it's NOT the old standby that any PR is good PR.

Asking the "What-Ifs"

From a PR standpoint, it's hard to imagine something like this happening without a plan or at the very least some kind of handler in the background working tirelessly to manage damage control.  And yet, at every turn, Sheen has popped up on talk shows of all stripes.  And more remarkably, he's been just as crazy, if not moreso in each follow up interview.  Now, as anyone knows, actors, especially big-time actors, have agents, handlers, PR experts and image consultants that are constantly working behind the scenes to manage every public appearance, monitor every word and dictate the message.  Actors associated with major production outlets have an extra layer of handlers doing pretty much the same thing, only on behalf of the production company.  This is TWO layers of handlers for an actor to fight through to let his or her own personality shine, or explode, whichever it may be.

So when an actor does go off the reservation and gets wild or does ANYTHING to tarnish their image and reputation, or that of their production bosses, there's often an army of handlers scrambling behind the scenes to put a cork on the problem, spin away the issues and begin to fix anything that may have been broken.

Yet, surprisingly, this hasn't happened in Sheen's case.  Not only have the handlers apparently sat by idly while Sheen ran rampant all over the public airwaves, it seems as if they've encouraged his behavior by booking him on every show known to man with either little or no coaching whatsoever.

I don't know about you, but this seems a bit odd.  More than odd, it's almost criminally negligent.  IF Sheen is doing this all on his own, and his handlers are sitting back doing nothing, they should be fired, then sued, then thrown in jail for stealing money from Sheen.

However, if this is, instead, some kind of a larger plan, then it would seem that they have done their job.  Not because they unleashed a wild and crazy actor onto an unsuspecting public, but because, if this was all planned, it was, in a word, brilliant.  Brilliant because the whole thing began so spontaneously.  It didn't feel concocted or contrived.  One minute Sheen was dealing with some very serious personal legal issues, and the next moment, he is the cover boy for "Insane Weekly."

As a former journalist, Sheen's actions look like the very real ravings of a man on the edge.  From a PR perspective, this entire situation feels like part of something much bigger.  The inaction of his PR team sends up red flags to me.  No one, and I mean NO ONE, would allow their client to perform like this under the glare of the media and public spotlight without either having given up completely or having a plan in place. 

Why Does It Matter?

One of the biggest questions I've heard over the past couple of weeks is from clients and friends alike who simply want to know why.  Why has the Charlie Sheen spectacle taken over our broadcasts?  Why has it invaded our social consciousness?  Why is it suddenly our cultural touchstone?  Most importantly; why is the media continuing to make this an even bigger media circus than it already was?

The answers are pretty simple actually.  Let's take a look back at the elements of what makes a good news story.  You have proximity, impact, timeliness, relevance and WOW factor.  Breaking down these elements into this particular story, it's easy to see that timeliness and WOW factor are the driving forces behind this continuing story.

Sure, it has little to no impact on our daily lives, for most of us, there is little relevance.  Although some news organizations are using this epic implosion to focus on mental illness, drug abuse and domestic violence, which is noble.  And while we all might feel like we know Sheen at least a little because we have seen so many of his movies and TV shows, there's really no proximity. 

That leaves us with timeliness, which is and easy one, since this story grows bigger with each passing interview.  He goes on the Howard Stern show on a Thursday, and by Thursday afternoon, he's headline news again and the social media platforms are burning up with his quotes. 

But it's the WOW factor that is the real meat of this story.  It's part voyeurism, part fireworks show.  Many following the story do so because they enjoy watching someone rich and famous crumble right before our eyes.  Others follow because they are simply amazed or dumbfounded by his actions.  Even others follow the story because it's fascinating to see a person who seemingly had it all, throw it all away.  Americans like to root for the underdog, we also like winners (WINNING!) and then, at some point, we eat our own.  We eventually like to see our hero's fail because there's something satisfying in watching someone richer, or more famous, talented, good-looking, etc, fail.  It makes us feel better about ourselves on some level. 

Story Matters Here:

This is something newsrooms know all too well.  Journalists know that the American public likes to see people fall from high places.  It's even better when they do it to themselves and even better than that if they do it in such a way that leaves a flaming heap of personal debris along the way.  It's why the Michael Jackson stories were so big.  It's why newsrooms followed the Brittney Spears story so closely. 

Sure, entertainment may be seen as a diversion to those who prefer to keep an eye on events in Libya, Iraq and Russia.  But those problems always seem so far away and removed to an American public that prefers to watch American Idol to the BBC.  The Charlie Sheen story may not have the impact or oomph that the chaos in the Middle East may have, but it is certainly more entertaining and it has all the elements of a tragic story that appeals so much to the average person.

And it's those story elements that would make even Shakespeare proud.  You have it all.  Character, plot twists, intrigue, tragedy, comedy, love, hate, a moral.  In Sheen you have a talented, but deeply flawed individual who is adored by many, is well known, who seems to have everything. 

And, like any good Shakespearean play, the main character tragically tumbles from his ivory tower through a series of poor choices and myopia.  You see, journalists know a good story when they see one, and this one is as good as it gets.  There's a reason why Shakespeare was so popular, why romance novels routinely outsell NY Times Bestseller books and why "reality" TV watched more than PBS. 

So, What Can I Learn?

Like every other exercise here at RPR, the purpose is to take real-life events and glean valuable knowledge whenever possible.  So in this case, you might be wondering, "What can I learn from the Sheen overload that can help my small business or non-profit?" 

First, we hope you learned what NOT to do in an effort to get noticed.  You should NOT make outrageous statements that hint at massive drug abuse, misogyny and a blatant disregard for the law on your behalf.  While it certainly may get attention, the fact is, you're not Charlie Sheen and it likely won't help your business grow and prosper. 

However, there ARE some elements of the "Sheen Incident" that you CAN use for your future social media efforts. First and foremost, you should recognize the elements of WHY the Sheen story has captured our imagination.  As mentioned above, you have two things happening here.

1.  Some of the elements of news, including WOW factor
2.  All the elements of a great story

Now realize this; you don't have to publicly implode in order to get attention.  However, in order to catch the eye of folks on Social Media and in the press, you DO need a good story and you have to have some elements of news. 

Obviously, most of us don't have the name-recognition that a Charlie Sheen does.  But we DO all have great stories to tell.  You can tell a story with character, with plot twists and movement, with a moral with intrigue.  Your story can be funny or it can be a tragedy, but you HAVE to have a story to tell. 

With Sheen, we already all knew the backstory.  So we basically started in the middle, with his career blowup.  All great stories have a backstory.  But that backstory should be able to be told in a few, short sentences so that the audience can get right to the meat of the matter. 

For instance, if you're telling the story of a war veteran who has lost his house, you can tell his backstory in a quick two-sentence summary.  Man serves his country, loves his wife and children, follows the rules, and then, after returning home from service in a war zone, finds himself in financial trouble and at odds with his bank.  You have a main character, a bad guy which sets up conflict, you start in the middle with his return home and his struggles to keep his home and provide for his family.  It tugs at the heartstrings, it's a tragedy and audiences everywhere can relate to the the issues.

This is why it's so important to really put some thought into your story.  You have a good story, you have a great shot at grabbing the attention of readers, friends, followers and the media. 

The other element at work here is the WOW factor.  This is often very hard for small businesses and non-profits to generate.  You just don't have the cache that movie stars, sports stars and politicians have.  There's nothing wrong with that, but still the question persists...how can you use the WOW factor to enhance the profile of your business or non-profit?

Use Your Power Wisely:

Ultimately, WOW factor can either be celebrity focused, OR it can involve something so unique or eye-catching that people simply have to see it.  Online, this is what normally passes for viral videos.  A piano playing cat, a merengue-dancing dog, a waterskiing squirrel, these videos get viewed millions of times on YouTube because they're funny, unique and incredible.  But it doesn't always have to be dogs.  People can get in on the act as well.

In Denver 30 years ago, a man gained attention and fame by doing a series of stunts for charity.  He sat in every seat in Mile High Stadium.  He swam a lake 100 times, he used a pogo-stick to cross the state of Colorado.  All of these stunts grabbed the attention of the press and ultimately the public.

Think about how others grab attention.  They sit on a billboard for weeks at a time.  They stage protests, they organize things like massive bike rides through the center of town, disrupting traffic.  All of these things are headline grabbers.  Not all of them, however, will work to enhance the image of your organization.

Clearly, the WOW factor is great at getting attention.  But it's also risky.  If you do it in such a way that goes against your image or grabs attention in a negative way, then you risk damaging your organization.  You may, in the short term, gain notariety for your organization, but in the long run, bad publicity will cost you customers. 

What you want to do is grab attention by doing something big, something positive, something that fits into the image and values of your organization.  If you can do this, you CAN raise your profile and give yourself a pulpit from which to spread your message.

One example of this is a man who I used to cover when working in radio.  Ever year, starting right after Thanksgiving, this man would begin pitching his story to newsrooms across Denver.  He would drive his semi-truck around town, and then, dressed like a superhero Santa, complete with a mask so nobody knew who he was, would stand on top of his semi, encouraging people to bring him presents which he would later give to children.  This became an annual tradition and after a few years, the masked Santa was a local hit. 

While this story did have proximity and impact as well as timeliness, it was the WOW factor of being a "mysterious Santa" that garnered him much more coverage than the multitude of other toy drives taking place in the city at the same time.

In the end, as we watch "The Man They Call Charlie" continue his plummet into celebrity hell, we can look at it and understand why it's such a big story.  But more importantly, we can watch it and learn from his actions, his mistakes and the hidden strokes of genius.  You can learn what not to do, and take from this story the elements of story, news and character that you can use to make your efforts a success. 

And if that doesn't work, you can always go out and get yourself some tiger blood, fists of fire and adonis DNA.