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After stepping in for Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men, Ashton Kutcher has had nothing but bad luck. First, the tabloid sensation over his crumbling marriage. Then, the show lost its crown as the most-watched comedy on TV. And now, an errant tweet of support for embattled football coach Joe Paterno has sent the actor/tech entrepreneur running from Twitter. There hasn’t been much #winning for the poor guy.
Way back in 2009 – a lifetime ago in the Twitterverse – Kutcher was a virtual rock star, captivating the nation and the media with his embrace of 140 character public updates on his life, love, work and hobbies. His race with CNN to be the first to reach one million followers was a huge story that firmly established Twitter as a viable communications channel in modern society. But it seems almost quaint to think of those halcyon days as the calendar inches towards 2012 and an ill-informed post has sent the one-time Twitter darling in a virtual run for the hills.
It all started with Kutcher when tweeted, “How do you fire Jo Pa? #insult #noclass as a hawkeye fan I find it in poor taste.” Kutcher was under the mistaken impression that Paterno was fired after years of mounting criticism regarding his age. The actor had no idea that Paterno was actually fired for intentionally looking the other way on child sex abuse at Penn State. It’s obvious to the world that Kutcher simply didn’t have all the facts and would never publicly or privately endorse a man so clearly complicit in a heinous crime. Accusations of Kutcher’s insensitivity are particularly off balance when considering that he and wife Demi Moore founded DNA Foundation to combat worldwide sex slavery.
As the furor mounted, the reporters called and the Twittersphere asked him what was going on, he quickly deleted the tweet and wrote a long blog post apologizing for his insensitivity and announcing that his handlers at Katalyst Media would take over his accounts.
There have been more than a few social media gaffes by public figures that are proof of the need to have third-party control of a star’s Twitter and Facebook channels. Anthony Weiner’s illicit photos and Chris Brown’s bigoted slurs come to mind. But those two guys have far greater personal, professional and legal demons to fight than Kutcher. Those are men with such little self-control that they should be muzzled if they want to ever have a successful career in the public eye.
At the end of the day, common sense is always the most important trait to have in exercising good and effective public communications. Did Kutcher exercise it? Yes. He made a statement with the facts he had available. Was he wrong? Yes. But there isn’t a person alive who hasn’t been wrong at least once today. Should he apologize? Yes. But not in anything more than a single tweet explaining the situation.
Let’s give the American public some credit. There were a few trolls who immediately flamed Kutcher for defending Paterno, but the vast majority of people are sensible enough to know that he didn’t mean any harm. They see it for what it is: an honest mistake. That’s why his reputation will be unaffected in the long-run for a single errant tweet.
On the other hand, evacuating Twitter may have the opposite effect. Kutcher turning over the controls of his account officially marks the end of the innocence for Twitter and social media. The last few years have been a golden age for Hollywood in terms of bringing together stars and fans because of social media like Twitter. The iron-fisted grip reputation managers exert over celebrities, politicians and public figures has loosened so much almost overnight. The public has enjoyed unparalleled access to the figures that captivate them.
But that creates a problem for the powers that be, particularly in Hollywood, where this distraction couldn’t come at a worse time for CBS and Chuck Lorre Productions – Kutcher’s employers on Two and a Half Men. The memories of Charlie Sheen’s tiger blood-infused meltdown are starting to fade away but “safe bet” Kutcher is making headlines for everything but his performance on the show. He was given free reign when he was a fresh-faced, tech-loving, itinerate star. The second there’s a crack in the façade, the old-school mentality kicked in and Kutcher is forced to step aside to let the professional message makers direct his public communications.
From reading trade industry publications, the old guard in Hollywood is sending a message. Kutcher’s gaffe is a lesson to be learned. The studios know best.
But the truth is that Kutcher rode the crest of public support for his first-in-line enthusiasm and an open embrace of Twitter and other cutting-edge technology. The one-time biochemical engineering major is known as a sort of tech guru for his investments in startups and collaboration with innovators in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Beyond the screen, he rose to be the star he is by being who he is – and not caving to traditional restrictions on how a public figure should act around fans.
Abandoning his throne on Twitter may be the biggest mistake he can make in his career, which includes more than a few highly questionable film projects that crashed and burned. Fans forgive bad movies, but they don’t forgive cowardice. Love him or hate him, Kutcher is one of the most relatable stars in Hollywood today precisely because he uses the communications channels of the people without a filter. By putting that filter – his reputation managers – over his thoughts, he effectively kills all entertainment value in his Twitter channel and damages his long-term viability as a star with whom people can connect.
Kutcher stepping away also sends a damning message to other stars who have tried valiantly over the last few years to break the mold and connect directly with the public via social media. He’s led the way in knocking down walls that shield celebrities from their adoring public. And he’ll lead the way back to cover if he doesn’t come back to Twitter.
Please come back, Ashton. You’re making a bigger mistake stepping away.
Brad Chase co-manages Capitol Media Partners, a Los Angeles-based communications and public affairs consultancy. He serves on the Advisory Council for thinkLA, the non-profit association for L.A.’s advertising, communications, marketing, media and PR community. With nearly a decade of experience providing communications counsel to some of the world’s largest organizations, he was recently named to the PR News 15 to Watch list – which recognizes the top communications/PR executives in the U.S. under the age of 30.
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