PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) inadvertently stole the show at this year’s Oscars following an incredible mix up in which La La Land was incorrectly announced as winner of the Best Picture award. Initially, suspicions that the gaffe was a publicity stunt designed to boost flagging ratings detracted attention from PwC’s responsibility for the error.
PwC has managed the Oscars balloting process for 83 of the awards’ 89 years; this makes it even more surprising that there appeared to be no set procedure for dealing with an envelope mix up. In an eerily prescient article published in The Huffington Post two days before the awards night, Brian Cullinan – one of two high profile PwC vote counters responsible for the error – commented that in the extremely unlikely event of the wrong winner being announced his response would be a “game-time decision.”
Cullin and his colleague Martha Ruiz had to be pushed back onstage to correct their error. Their initial reluctance meant that the La La Land acceptance speech was uncomfortably well underway before the situation was rectified.
“The Oscars incident is a perfect example of why it pays to have clear and predetermined roles and responsibilities in the event of a crisis,” explains 89 Degrees East Content Strategist Margaret Pincus. “It’s not enough to rely on instinctual responses because generally people won’t fall over themselves to take responsibility for an embarrassing error.”
Initially, PwC issued a statement that was posted on the Oscars website apologising to the presenters, involved films, and viewers, acknowledging their full responsibility for the error, and stating that they were “investigating how it could have happened.” Perhaps realising that the trending #envelopegate hashtag wasn’t doing to die fast, they then followed this up with a more detailed and heartfelt explanation that assigned personal responsibility to Brian Cullinan and commended the “tremendous grace” shown by all affected parties during the ceremony.
As an organisation that works across accounting, audit, assurance, tax, and even crisis management services, PwC’s reputation hinges on its accuracy, integrity and a high level of trust from stakeholders. The way PwC responded to the Oscars gaffe is as important to their reputation as the mistake itself.
So, how much damage did they really do and what can be learned from the debacle?
To their credit, PwC weren’t shy or slow to address and own up to their mistake. However, they used passive, vague language in their statement, apologising for “the error that was made” rather than “our error,” and stating that “the presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong envelope” – but by whom?
While they did follow up their initial promise to investigate the incident with a more detailed report, PwC have not since shared information about what they have done to ensure nothing like this will ever happen again.
Unsurprisingly, Cullin and Ruiz’s involvement in the Oscars is over; PwC, however, stood by their employees through the tirade of cyber aggression and even death threats, but didn’t go as far as to publicly defend the pair. A carefully worded statement explaining the organisation’s decision to remain loyal to their employees rather than give them the flick may have reflected well on PwC’s company culture.
At the end of the day, the best thing an organisation can do in the event of a crisis is take responsibility for their actions and be transparent about what went wrong and how they have learned from it. The worst is to say nothing and pretend the situation will go away, handball responsibility, or make the situation worse with deception. The fact that PwC’s mistake was the result of an undoubtedly embarrassing but ultimately forgivable human error, rather than corruption, malice or aggression a la United Airlines’ recent misdemeanour, gives their reputation the best chance of rehabilitation in the long term.