Sheen, Wu and Reputation Management

Trying to bluff your way through a crisis is like tiptoeing on a window ledge to get to the hotel lobby. You are more likely to crash than control the damage.The recent media surges by Charlie Sheen and Oregon First District Congressman David Wu serve as a painful reminder that preserving your reputation requires more than just talking. It demands discipline and a realistic strategy.

Sheen has shown up from dawn to late night on talk shows. Whatever his intention in his media availabilities, Sheen has come across as someone deep in denial. He may have set a record in racking up Twitter followers, but after a week of gab he now appears estranged from two ex-wives and his four children. No matter how much you might enjoy the TV sitcom "Two and Half Men," the most prevalent public reaction to Sheen is pity, not respect.

He needs help, and not just medical attention.

The same can be said for Wu who has emerged on the national stage as a caricature in a tiger suit. Based on Wu's statements to the media and Democratic supporters, he suffers from some form of mental health illness, has sought professional help and has his issue under control. Yet, Wu is under a continuing barrage to be more forthcoming and specifically explain why his senior congressional and campaign staff members departed shortly after the 2010 election last November.

Interestingly, both Sheen and Wu describe themselves as in a good place. But how good a place is it when you transmogrify into a laugh line?

For Sheen, perhaps the publicity will pay off in a renewed contract for his TV show, which people may watch to see if he can stand up for an entire 30-minute episode.

Wu's case is more nuanced. He says he intends to remain in office and run for re-election in 2012. That means he plans to stay in the public eye. For an intelligent person such as Wu, that should signal a need to stop the game of chicken he is playing with the media, especially The Oregonian, and develop a sound reputation management strategy.

The American public has shown it can be empathetic and forgiving – if it feels it is being leveled with and is getting the truth.

Wu claims he deserves a measure of privacy about his condition and its cure. Maybe so. But his reputation as an elected public official needs an equal measure of concern, matched by a willingness to talk with the people he represents.

Amid the agony of a communications crisis comes a moment of opportunity to show character, responsiveness and decency. Talking straight, telling the truth and facing your publics is a proven path to reputation redemption.

Sheen has pretty much blown his chance to salvage his reputation. There is still time for Wu to salvage his. But he needs more than talking points and a few appearances on TV. Wu needs to commit to a candid explanation about his situation. This may cause him some short-term anguish, but it will be a step in the right direction to the long-term rehabilitation of his reputation, his most valuable asset.