When storytellers become the story: Sean Penn and Rolling Stone

The CEO of Havas PR considers the mix of ego, sensationalism and business savvy that drove this tale to press

The first thought that came to mind when the Rolling Stone bombshell landed was, WTF?

What the heck was going on with the ego of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera that prompted him to risk his freedom for 15 minutes of fame? Did he think people would find him sympathetic? Admirable? And also, what great ego food for Sean Penn that he was able to score that meeting and that assignment. 

From a pop-culture standpoint, big congratulations are due Penn and Rolling Stone for being, rather than simply breaking, the news — the ultimate success in the PR space. That is, the storytellers are the story and they also get to craft the storyline. 

Penn has already been proving himself as a badass, modern-day Renaissance man. He has grown from a paparazzo-punching bad boy into one of those timeless icons who transcends generations and genres, and in turn owns the news. Along with acting, he has proved able as a director with films like "Into the Wild" and an agitator with moves like meeting with top Iraqi officials before the US invasion. He has also earned respect as a humanitarian for the work he has done in post-earthquake Haiti. Penn went to Haiti out of conviction, of course, but he certainly has a knack for staying in the news. 

And even if you somehow missed the El Chapo news, he managed to keep gossip columnists’ (and their readers’) interest with glimmers of a reunion with Madonna — another icon who transcends generations and genres — right as the drug lord story broke. Madonna appeared that evening at a benefit Penn hosted for his Haiti relief foundation, J/P HRO, held hands with him and told him she loves him in a speech, leading a New York Times columnist to call them the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor of 2016. 

In this case, Penn bent the rules. (Journalism-watchers are troubled that he allowed Guzmán Loera to approve — and even line-edit — the article before publication, and it should give anyone pause to think that he wrote a 10,000-word article from a seven-hour interview conducted with no notebook or recorder but with tequila in hand.) Then again, in his case, maybe he owns the rules. The interview was another chance for him to be the man and to cement his image as an arbiter of pop culture. 

Penn has sent a vibe that he is at the intersection of rebellion and storytelling. This is a great place to be when you are the business of being Sean Penn and making great drama. So even while he is under legal investigation (though he appears unfazed by it, and told the AP he has "nothin’ to hide"), it’s all good. At least for him.  

Rolling Stone benefits because despite the ages of everyone involved (except perhaps actress Kate del Castillo, who helped broker the interview), the publication feels as if it’s at the cutting edge — a k a youngish or at least rebellious. It’s a tether to the once-rambunctious magazine’s early days as the home of the original gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson. It makes Rolling Stone feel vital again, like something readers need to visit and buy. It’s hard not to see how advertisers — even if they don’t want their product seen right next to a murderous criminal — wouldn’t want to follow the readers to what is increasingly feeling like a must-read again. 

El Chapo isn’t the first story to return to Rolling Stone’s ballsy, iconoclastic roots in recent years. It’s lately managing to transcend its image as a purveyor of boy bands and aging guitar heroes. Remember the bombshell interview that brought down Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2010? And the brilliant Matt Taibbi exposé of Goldman Sachs from the same year, which entered the phrase "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity" into the American vernacular?

But more recently, Rolling Stone has been the news for negative reasons. Lawsuits are still ongoing after the scandal of the shoddily reported, minimally fact-checked and flat-out false story about gang rapes at the University of Virginia last year. The PR damage to the publication’s brand may be worse. Already Rolling Stone is coming under fire both for allowing the subject’s approval and for what Vanity Fair called the "considerable moral relativism involved in writing a mostly favorable piece about a man responsible for the deaths of thousands." Then again, as with Penn, maybe RS is reinventing what counts as journalism — maybe in 2016, it’s not all multiple sources and independently verified facts.

But even with that said, Rolling Stone still needs to be careful. It wants to be read for the right reasons, and to do that it will have to cut the error rate and work to ensure that it sustains the cool of being part of the story, while not devolving into a storytelling venue that lacks all law and order. 

I might be glossing over the legal and ethical dimensions and focusing on the making of a great story. But in this business, this is where the lore gets spun. If I were the übercriminal, I would be insanely angry at myself for letting my ego get the best of me and talking. But isn’t that what always happens — the criminal has to vent to at least one person, and then the whispers begin?

Marian Salzman is CEO of Havas PR.

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