It should have been a moment of triumph for the Oscars. After two years of social media blowback and protests about the lack of diversity in its membership ranks and across their list of nominees, the Academy Awards honored a record number of African-American artists. In a stunning upset, “Moonlight,” a tender-hearted drama about growing up gay and black, picked up best picture. Instead, an epic flub that saw presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly award the top prize to “La La Land” has dominated headlines.
“The success of films such as ‘Moonlight’ and the greater balance in terms of the diversity of the winners has been totally overshadowed by this,” said Kevin Craig, CEO and founder of PLMR, a public relations firm. “In other years, a film with a budget of $1.5 million winning best picture would be seismic. Instead we’re talking about Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, and this car crash footage.”
In the aftermath, two different organizations are grappling with the fallout from the slip-up seen around the world. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the group behind the film honors, is trying to figure out how to signal to its members, honorees, and viewers at home that the same mistakes won’t be made again. At the same time, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the venerable accounting firm that has tabulated the Oscars results for over 80 years, is working to ensure that its reputation stays intact.
So far, the Academy has largely signaled that the blame lies with PwC, and with some cause. It was PwC partner Brian Cullinan who handed Beatty the wrong envelope. Minutes before the ill-fated hand-off, Cullinan tweeted a picture of best actress winner Emma Stone (he later deleted the tweet), and his social media activity has raised questions about his professionalism.
“One often sees that in a fast-moving crisis, an organization that’s looking to close down a problem seeks to identify a single part of that organization or a person that can carry the can for the failure,” said Craig. “Mr. Cullinan is looking like the lightening rod for blame for this incident.”
In a statement, PwC said it took “full responsibility” for the mess up, but the task ahead will call for more than just contrition. The accounting firm has two immediate issues that it must address. It has to make amends to its client, in this case the Academy, and it must work to revitalize its profile in the eyes of the wider public. Heading into the awards show, PwC, ranked alongside professional service firms like Ernst & Young, KPMG, and Deloitte as a symbol of a certain type of buttoned-up dependability. In the time it took for Dunaway to read out “La La Land’s” name, that image shifted dramatically.
“For PriceWaterhouse, it’s the best p.r. in the world when they have their accountants on stage in front of a billion people,” said Howard Bragman, chairman and CEO of Fifteen Minutes PR.”It’s a golden tiara opportunity, but when there’s a screw up it’s the worst thing that can happen. They need to take this seriously.”
If PwC is able to keep the Academy’s account, a big if, they will have to show that they are putting certain safeguards in place to prevent future mistakes. In an interview with Variety on Monday, Tim Ryan, the accounting firm’s U.S. chairman and senior partner, said that he was focused on owning up to the error, not in whether or not the firm would still get to count up votes at future shows.
“I expect us to get something like this right and our focus right now is just on making sure the Academy and the rest of the folks know that and the rest will play out,” Ryan said.
As for the Academy, the institution has its own cleanup to do. It took the group a full day to issue an apology, an eternity in an era of hyper-metabolic news cycles. As of Monday afternoon, neither Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs nor CEO Dawn Hudson had called to apologize to the “La La Land” producers who were in the middle of impassioned acceptance speeches when they were forced to give up their statues in front of millions of TV viewers. The slow pace led to some bruised feelings.
“I’m surprised it took them so long to pull something together,” said Katie Sprehe, director of corporate reputation and brand strategy at APCO Worldwide. “My advice to any client is you need to apologize immediately and take responsibility.”
“You want to be the one controlling the message,” she added.
Public relations experts say that the situation could have been worse if not for the gracious response of “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz, who took the microphone to announce the mistake and to say it was a privilege to hand the award to the “Moonlight” team.
“He has an alternative future in crisis management,” said Craig. “He saved the Oscars from even more embarrassment.”