How to humanise a corporate crisis – PwC at the Oscars

Ah the Oscars 2017. Emma Stone in fringed Givenchy, Jimmy Kimmel ribbing Matt Damon and – finally – an awards year that represents a real show of diversity. The Academy must feel so proud of everything that the 2017 awards will be remembered for… right?

Well, unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the past 24 hours, unfortunately, you’ll know that the one headline that dominated all others was the huge mistake that caused La La Land to be announced as Best Picture rather than Moonlight. It was a slip of the envelope of epic proportions that has left the whole thing looking a bit of a shambles.

What exactly happened

The confusion arose when Warren Beatty opened the envelope to announce the Best Picture winner and was confronted by the card naming Emma Stone as Best Actress. If you watch the clips of that moment you can see the confusion all over his face and he eventually shoves the card at Faye Dunaway who sees ‘La La Land’ written under Emma’s name and announces that. The La La Land team come to the stage, make their acceptance speeches and then there is panic during which another envelope is produced that clearly shows Moonlight to be the winner.

PwC left red faced

You may or may not have known that PwC is the firm behind the envelopes at the Oscars – they have been now for 80+ years. The Academy was quick to name them as the source of the mix up on Sunday night and the firm now faces a rather embarrassing reputational blip, having created a moment of catastrophic error at the climactic moment of the biggest Hollywood night of the year in front of an audience of about 33 million viewers. So, how have they dealt with it?

Apologise first

The first thing that PwC did was to apologise, quickly – a very good move. A statement from the accounting firm read “We sincerely apologise to Moonlight, La La Land, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for best picture.”

Almost as soon as the firm was revealed as the source of the error the press went into overdrive looking for points to score. This included the fact that Brian Cullinan, one of the two accountants in charge of the envelopes, was busy tweeting a photo of Emma Stone backstage after her Best Actress win when he perhaps should have been concentrating on the Best Picture envelope.

Then take action

PwC also immediately announced an enquiry into what happened – another good step – and acknowledged that no one moved quickly enough when the wrong film was announced. Not only did La La Land producers get halfway through acceptance speeches before anyone came on stage and corrected the situation but it actually took three hours after that for PWC to officially confirm that Beatty and Dunaway had been sent on stage with the wrong envelope.

So, the enquiry is important as it’s an acceptance of wrongdoing and shows an intention to put it right with new protocols

Humanising a crisis

Then today, the firm named Brian Cullinan as the person who handed the wrong envelope over. You may or may not agree with this ‘throwing someone under the bus’ approach – it doesn’t always reflect that well on the company doing it.

However, under these circumstances, it could only have been one of two people so it makes more sense. Plus, it has given Cullinan the opportunity to make some very genuine apologies of his own, giving the whole crisis a human face – and a very sad and sorry one at that (he said he feels “horrible, absolutely horrible.”).

So PwC suddenly doesn’t seem like a big corporate machine being inept but a normal, authentic human being who perhaps got caught up in a moment and made a genuine error.

Although there is no doubt that this will go down as the biggest fiasco in Oscar history I’m not sure that this will damage PwC’s reputation that significantly in the long term. Given their (relatively) fast, apologetic response and humanising of the crisis, as well as the fact that the Oscars is such a specific one-off event, they might just get away with this one.

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