One of the most important rules of crisis communication is: If you are in a hole, stop digging.
Charlie Sheen, however, has refused to put his shovel down since being fired by Warner Bros. from his starring role on the hit CBS sitcom "Two and a Half Men." Though he hasn't struck gold, he also hasn't buried himself alive — yet.
On the surface, Sheen's rants of the last several weeks seem designed to lay the groundwork for an insanity defense. He talks of being a "warlock" and having "tiger blood" and the "DNA of an Adonis." He's called "Two and a Half Men" co-creator and executive producer Chuck Lorre a "clown" and a "contaminated little maggot."
However, Sheen — who kicks off his "My Violent Torpedo of Truth / Defeat Is Not an Option Show" tour Saturday in Detroit — appears to have a method to his madness. Since launching his media blitzkrieg in his fight against Warner Bros. and Lorre, he has surprisingly dictated much of the media coverage. Despite a tabloid-ready past that includes drug addiction, three messy divorces, a penchant for prostitutes and accusations of violence toward women, Sheen has somehow been able to portray himself as a David battling evil corporate Goliaths.
When the actor made a cameo appearance on Jimmy Kimmel's late-night show last week, he was hailed much like a conquering war hero by the studio audience.
"I don't know whether it is a crafted strategy or not, but this has made him into the most prominent personality in entertainment," said Peter Sealey, a former head of marketing for Columbia Pictures and currently an adjunct professor at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at the Claremont Graduate University. "He has created sympathy for himself.... 'Here I am, poor little me, fighting these conglomerates.'"
Sheen's move to shun the Hollywood game of acting contrite when caught behaving badly clearly has struck a chord with a portion of the population weary of celebrities who whine and apologize about their mistakes only to go out and commit them again. Sheen, as he told Andrea Canning on ABC's "20/20," wants to embrace his "bitchin' rock star life" and love and defend it "through violent hatred."
"Despite the issues that have to do with his health and well-being, the impulses that he has allowed himself to be driven by are absolutely mind-bogglingly brilliant in terms of career enhancement," said Marina Ein, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant whose clients have included Michael Milken and Jack Abramoff.
Sheen appears to have stumbled into his take-no-prisoners approach. At the end of January after production was shut down on "Two and a Half Men," his then-spokesman Stan Rosenfield put out a short statement saying Sheen had entered a treatment center and was "most grateful to all who have expressed their concern." A couple of days later, Sheen issued another statement saying he wanted "to say 'thank-you' to my fellow cast members, the crew of 'Two and a Half Men.'"
That was the last anyone would hear from the nice Charlie. Perhaps aware that his stay-at-home rehab wasn't sitting too well with CBS, Warner Bros. and Lorre, Sheen decided it was time to get out in front of the story. He started slowly. On Feb. 14 he called in to Dan Patrick's sports talk radio show and told his bosses he was ready to go back to work, barely two weeks after saying he was seeking treatment.
"I heal really quickly, but I unravel pretty quickly so get me right now, guys," Sheen said.
A week later he turned up the volume on Alex Jones' radio show. Addressing Lorre, Sheen said, "I embarrassed him in front of his children and the world by healing at a pace that his un-evolved mind cannot process.... I've spent, I think, close to the last decade, I don't know, effortlessly and magically converting your tin cans into pure gold. And the gratitude I get is this charlatan chose not to do his job, which is to write."
After that, Sheen took his act from radio to TV with appearances on ABC, NBC and CNN in the week of Feb. 28. Instead of hiding from the celebrity gossip websites like most stars, he invited them into his backyard. Rosenfield threw up his arms and quit in frustration, saying, "I'm unable to work effectively as his publicist." The following week, tired of his barbs, Warner Bros. fired Sheen, who then sued the studio and Lorre for breach of contract.
None of that slowed down Sheen. He launched his own Web show, and unveiled his live tour plans. Then, he joined Twitter and quickly amassed a huge following — more than 3 million followers.
Sheen, who famously declared in one interview that he was on a drug called "Charlie Sheen," doesn't appear to be the only one under its influence. The media, by and large, have avoided pressing the star about his troubles and have been handsomely rewarded with huge spikes in Web traffic and ratings.
For all the success he has had in manipulating the media, it remains to be seen whether being Charlie Sheen is a good career move.
"He definitely has a fan base. The question is how big is it really and how long does it last until people move on to the next thing," said Hope Boonshaft, an executive vice president at public relations firm Hill & Knowlton and a former senior executive at Sony Pictures.
Sheen retained a new spokesman — Hollywood veteran Larry Solters — who said his client was unavailable to comment on his handling of the media,
"Charlie designed all this," Solters said. "It represents the evolution of providing information to the media."
Of course, not every master of spin thinks Sheen is a brilliant communication strategist.
"Slipping on a banana peel and then saying, 'I meant to do that,' is not a strategy. You'd do a lot better not to step on the banana peel in the first place," said Allan Mayer, a principal partner of communications firm 42 West. "When this one does turn sour, we will be amazed that we ever found it amusing."