Right about now ESPN's Keith Olbermann should be finishing up his foot-in-mouth-imposed suspension from the sports network for getting into a war of tweets with a bunch of students from Penn State. What made this situation somewhat different than others is that the target of the sports commentator’s ire was a group of students that had just raised over $13 million for patients with pediatric cancer and their families.
What happened was, last Monday night, a Penn State alum tweeted a link to Olbermann that centered on a news story about how a large group of Penn State Students had organized their annual THON dance marathon and raised over $13 million for the Four Diamonds Fund. That’s a nonprofit organization dedicated to pediatric cancer patients and their families. They’ve been doing this in State College, Pennsylvania since 1977.
Olbermann tweeted back one word, “pitiful.”
All bets were off after that. Very quickly Penn State students, alumni and then many others jumped into the Twitter fray. Olbermann further engaged them by insulting their grammar, the quality of their education, their school and its reputation.
The next day, ESPN decided to suspend Olbermann for one week and issued a statement:
“We are aware of the exchange Keith Olbermann had on Twitter last night regarding Penn State. It was completely inappropriate and does not reflect the views of ESPN.”
From there Olbermann issued his apology on Twitter, saying, “I apologize for the PSU tweets. I was stupid and childish and way less mature than the students there who did such a great fundraising job.”
Breaking Through the Fourth Wall
Poor judgment aside, from a communications standpoint, what Olbermann may have been most guilty of was breaking through the Fourth Wall of the media. Crashing through it might be a better description.
In theater, the fourth wall is considered the imaginary “wall” at the front of the stage through which the audience sees the performance. When an actor talks directly to the audience, he breaks through the fourth wall. Or, on television or in the movies, when an actress speaks directly into the camera, that is breaking through the fourth wall.
As effective as this can be as a dramatic device, it can be quite dangerous in the sports or entertainment worlds where real people in real-life situations are involved. It gets real any time a comedian responds to a heckler in the audience. Or when professional athletes let the fans get to them.
One legendary example of this was in 2004 when, during an NBA game between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, Indiana’s Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson jumped into the stands and got into a brawl with some fans. Several people got hurt, and the police had to investigate.
Fortunately for Olbermann and those Penn State students, their battle was digital, but no less real, and that was the problem.
Celebrities have many opportunities to engage with the public. It may be at a structured public appearance, like a speech, or it could be at a coffee shop. They usually learn how to handle these situations.
Sports commentators may interact with fans at a game. Again, they usually know how to deal with these situations. And for seasoned pros like Olbermann, talking to the public via a camera lens is a talent.
Given his experience, you could assume Olbermann breaks the fourth wall all of the time. But social media is different. The interactions are as public as they are personal. They are as uncomplicated as a personal discussion, but can be amplified to thousands and millions in an instant.
I can’t speak for Olbermann, but demeaning a bunch of college students who reached out in the context of raising $13 million for kids with cancer, was not a proper application of that technique – breaking through the fourth wall. For celebrities, sometimes it’s best to operate as though there really is a safe barrier between them and the public and to respect it.
The lesson here for anyone, any brand, or any other celebrity is that when you engage one-on-one with fans or strangers on social media, you’re breaking through the fourth wall. Know this and tread skillfully.