Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher continue to experience fallout over the character letters they wrote on behalf of their "That '70s Show" co-star Danny Masterson ahead of his trial sentencing.
On Sept. 7, Masterson was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison for the rape of two women. Masterson did not testify at either trial and, through his lawyers, maintains his innocence.
In the days after their letters became public, the couple faced backlash from fans on social media platforms.
A video addressing the letters was posted to Kutcher's Instagram account Sept. 9, a day after they became public.
In his letter, Kutcher described Masterson as a "role model." In hers, Kunis called him an "extraordinary family man" and a father who "leads by example," "instilling in (his daughter) values that reflect integrity, compassion, and respect for others."
While the video was meant to quell backlash to the letters, it may have exacerbated the blowback even more, PR professional Beth Booker tells TODAY.com.
Further scrutiny is on Kutcher due to his involvement with Thorn, the organization he founded with Demi Moore to protect children from sexual abuse.
Kunis, in the video, speaks about how she and Kutcher “support victims” in their work.
Nearly a week later, on Sept. 14, Kutcher issued an apology to Thorn and announced that he would be stepping down from his role as board chairman effective immediately.
"This is what I would consider a major PR crisis for both of their careers," Booker, founder of Gracie PR, tells TODAY.com.
TODAY.com has reached out to representatives for Kutcher and Kunis for comment.
An apology or an explanation?
Booker says the backlash to the video is the result of fans picking up on a dissonance between the intention of the video and its contents.
"The video is being positioned as an apology video, but it’s definitely more of an explanation video," Booker says. "They weren't apologizing for writing the letters. ... They were apologizing that they got caught. This felt like a very quick reaction to a problem, not necessarily an apology."
Indeed, Kutcher and Kunis explain how the letters came to be. Kutcher said Masterson’s family requested they write a letter “(representing) the person that we knew for 25 years” for the judge to consider when sentencing. Character reference letters give judges context about the defendant.
Masterson’s wife, Bijou Phillips, as well as “That ’70s Show” stars Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith, and actors Giovanni and Marissa Ribisi also wrote letters.
“The letters were not written to question the legitimacy of the judicial system or the validity of the jury’s ruling,” Kunis said.
“They were intended for the judge to read,” Kutcher continued. “And not to undermine the testimony of the victims or re-traumatize them in any way. We never want to do that. And we’re sorry if that has taken place.”
Does an apology come? If so, to whom?
The couple does apologize in the video. Booker pays attention to who they apologize to and how they issue the apology.
Kutcher expresses regret for the potential impact the letters could have had: “They were intended for the judge to read, and not to undermine the testimony of the victims, or to re-traumatize them in any way. We would never want to do that. And we’re sorry if that has taken place.”
Kunis concludes the video by saying, “Our heart goes out to every single person who’s ever been a victim of sexual assault, sexual abuse or rape.”
Booker notes that "they do not make a reference specifically to Masterson's victims," who are called Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2 in the trial, or reference Masterson's convicted crimes. The jury could not reach a decision on the third accuser, Jane Doe 3, a former girlfriend of Masterson's.
Booker sees this as a "big omission." In order for the apology to be effective, Booker says, the couple has to "acknowledge the effect that their actions had on victims. And that was not what they did."
Reading into the video composition
Booker says "every type of statement" celebrities of their caliber are going to make is "extremely calculated," right down to the set-up of the video.
Here, Kunis and Kutcher are dressed casually and sit before a wooden wall. The intention, Booker guesses, is make them seem "normal, down-to-earth people."
"You can't see anything within their house. You can't see any signs of privilege. It's meant to feel relatable. They prop their iPhone just like all of us to take videos."
Booker predicts this scandal could have ramifications on the couple's careers "for a while."
What they need, Booker says, is a "time frame where they can issue the apology they should have said in the first place" — or rather, the apology fans were expecting.
They need a "sit-down interview focused on action. ... I would not say anything about them being canceled. People want accountability, not placing blame on everyone else," Booker says.
CORRECTION (Sept. 15, 2023 at 4:30 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Demi Lovato co-founded Thorn with Kutcher. It has been corrected to say Demi Moore.