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How did Charlie Sheen keep HIV a secret for 4 years?

Actor Charlie Sheen has always written his own narrative with the media. Even when the news was negative, like when he was fired from his show, "Two and a Half Men," Sheen got in front of the bad press with his own version of the event.

Actor Charlie Sheen speaks with Matt Lauer about being diagnosed with HIV.
TODAY
Actor Charlie Sheen speaks with Matt Lauer about being diagnosed with HIV.

You may not have agreed with his message or behavior, but when Sheen opened up about his troubles, he usually had a way of making you feel for him — at least when he was sober.

Now that the news is out that Sheen is HIV positive, the A-list celebrity is once again mastering the way his narrative is told. He didn't let you hear his story from the National Enquirer or another tabloid. He went directly to the consumer to share his story without filters — starting on the "Today" show.

Here is a closer look at why Sheen executed a nearly flawless crisis communications campaign.

1. The media didn't publish the story. Sheen acknowledged he's been HIV positive for four years. That's a long time to keep a secret — especially in Hollywood! And yet, he managed to keep it out of the press for four years, even though the gossip was circulating. That accomplishment is more proof of why Sheen and his team succeeded with this crisis campaign. The negative news was released on Sheen's terms — not the media's terms.

Keeping the story out of the news is a crucial factor for managing any crisis. In 2010, I ran a Congressional campaign when accusations surfaced about my candidate. The opponent held a press conference, revealing the news to the media — yet the story never was published. You know why? Because we poked holes and flaws in the story, which laid the groundwork for a libelous lawsuit. I'm sure Sheen's crisis team used that same playbook with media outlets that threatened to publish the story. Libel and slander are great tools to keep in your pockets during a crisis, especially when a prominent career or billion-dollar image is at stake.

But then, news surfaced on Monday that the National Enquirer was about to publish a story on Sheen. Their investigative reporters must have had some strong documents to bypass the libel and slander playbook because Sheen agreed to give NBC's Matt Lauer an exclusive sit-down with the news on the " Today" show.


2. Sheen was the first person to tell his story. People want to hear the story directly from the source, but when the news is scandalous, most people hiding the secret don't want to speak. That is a huge mistake because the story becomes one-sided. If there is a negative story that is about to break, get in front of it, like Sheen. Don't ever let a third party tell your story.

3. Sheen was accountable in his interview. Many people in the center of a scandal blame the victim or attack the accuser. Don't ever do that. Do what Sheen did. Take responsibility for your actions. What is so ironic is Sheen actually could have easily blamed others for his HIV situation, but he didn't. Yes, he admitted he was with prostitutes, used drugs and paid people millions of dollars for keeping his secret, but you never heard him blame anyone. He acknowledged he made the wrong decisions.

4. Sheen brought his doctor to the interview. Every negative campaign needs to involve a positive narrative if you are going to improve the public perception. Sheen brought his doctor to the interview and let him speak candidly on how this impacts the health of Sheen and the women he was with. I watched the interview this morning and when I heard Lauer tease that he would be speaking with Sheen's doctor later in the show, I wanted to trade the cereal for popcorn. A third, reliable and credible source was about to give me more insight into Sheen. I didn't want to turn away. Much of America may have not realized it but that third-party source was another tool to influence their perception.



5. Sheen conveyed that he has learned his lesson. Americans are forgiving. It's why politicians in scandals get re-elected. We want to give them a second chance. Every crisis narrative needs to include reasons that reinforce why this crisis situation won't happen again. Sheen left viewers with a picture (or a belief) that he is done with drugs and the behavior that led to this situation.


Commentary by Mark Macias, head of Macias PR, a global public relations firm that has run media and branding campaigns for politicians,tech start-ups, financial firms, nonprofits and companies. He's also author of the book, "Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing the Media." Follow him on Twitter @markmacias.