Over the last few weeks, we’ve all witnessed the very public, personal downfall of actor Charlie Sheen. It’s just the latest installment in the long-running saga “Celebrities Hellbent on Self-Destruction.”
The media thrives on stories like his. Print and broadcast interviewers trip over each other, scrambling to get an exclusive interview, the latest sound bite or commentary from anyone even vaguely related to Charlie. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does.
Every day seems to bring more damage to repair. For those of us in public relations in Hollywood, we like to think our primary job is helping to build and maintain our clients’ careers and/or positive images. Sometimes a client will take a misstep or make a gaffe, and it’s our job to help steer the media’s portrayal of them back on track.
Occasionally, when a client suddenly lands in the middle of a very large and public mess – whether personally inflicted or passively involved – we perform crisis management. Martha Stewart’s stock scandal comes to mind. BP’s job dealing with the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster does, too. Most clients rarely, if ever, need crisis management, so a few PR firms have established their reputations by doing almost nothing else.
But let me be perfectly clear here: Crisis management in the entertainment industry typically relates to an isolated incident that can potentially ruin someone’s career. Zsa Zsa Gabor slapping a police officer comes to mind. So does Hugh Grant’s escapade with a “working woman” on Hollywood Boulevard. Melissa Leo dropping the “F-bomb” on the Academy Awards a couple of weekends ago might be another good example.
Crisis management is not meant to be a Band-Aid (or tourniquet) for habitual, self-destructive behavior. Hello, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan … need I go on?
Not long ago, Stan Rosenfield, Charlie Sheen’s longtime publicist, resigned. He said, “I worked with Charlie Sheen for a long time and I care about him very much. However, at this time, I’m unable to work effectively as his publicist and have respectfully resigned.”
Hurray for Stan. Having represented more than my share of self-destructive celebrities over the last two decades, I applaud his decision. At a certain point, if you stay, you become an enabler. When is that? It’s different for each client. But how one becomes an enabler is much clearer.
When your client becomes the poster child for bad behavior or activity for which he or she repeatedly has been told will produce further (usually legal) repercussions – and your client continues to engage in such behavior knowing you, or someone like you (meaning, someone paid to work on his or her behalf) will “rescue” them and get them out of trouble because you always have – you’ve become an enabler and it’s time to leave.
Continuing to somehow “make it all better in the press” turns into enablement through public relations. It not only ignores one’s moral obligation to help another human being in trouble, but it also leaves a bad taste in the mouth professionally.
PR is an abbreviation for a great many things. Public relations is one. Personal responsibility is another. While public relations can fix a great many things, it can never supplant the personal responsibility of the client, or the client’s publicist.
Michael Levine is the founder of the PR firm LCO-Levine Communications Office in Los Angeles and is the author of 19 books.
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