Case Study: Accounting Firm’s Response To Oscar Goof Was Missed Opportunity

Written by Mike Shapiro | | March 2, 2017

By now, everyone’s heard about how the two employees of Price Waterhouse Coopers, the accounting firm charged with tallying Oscar votes, handed the wrong envelope to the presenters, causing them to announce La La Land instead of the real winner, Moonlight, as Best Picture.

It’s not the goof, but the firm’s response that provides a case study in missed opportunities. In short, it was both too much and too little.

Here’s what PwC did:

  1. Initially announced that “presenters were handed the wrong card.” Those are passive and weak words that conjure up ducking the blame. PwC should have used more active words accepting responsibility: “Our employees handed the presenters the wrong card.” Later statements did identify the employees, but it was too late to make the critical first impression.
  2. Promised an investigation. Investigate what? This was not Benghazi. Vowing to undertake an official-sounding, time-and-energy consuming project to assure the client that the “big boys are on it” doesn’t contribute anything to either the ‘fess-up or fix-up appropriate for this little mess.
  3. PwC Chairman offered to meet with Academy officials. To discuss what? A meeting is necessary when each party has positions and interests to share with the other in order to move forward. Here, the position and interest of the Academy is the same as it’s been for the last 83 years: “Give us the right envelope. Every time.” No meeting is necessary. The way forward was all up to PwC.
  4. Waited for the Academy to tell PwC they didn’t want the same two employees to work future awards ceremonies. PwC should have taken the initiative on that, too.

Here’s what the PwC Chairman should have done:

  1. Announce their own decision that the two employees would not be returning for future awards gigs.
  2. Propose a simple revision to the existing two-envelope system ensuring that the mistake would not be repeated. (The goof was made possible by the existence of two identical envelopes for each award. The card that was handed to Warren Beatty was actually one of two cards for Best Actress Emma Stone. Stone had been given her award and the other Best Actress card, and was actually holding it in her hand while Beatty and Faye Dunaway were given the other one. Apparently nobody knew they had the Best Actress card instead of the Best Picture card. If having two sets of cards is really critical to the smooth and effective working of the presentation process, why do they have to be identical? Why not have them be two different colors?)
  3. Offer some monetary recompense — to make a donation to a charity of the Academy’s choosing — and to work the Oscar night gig for free going forward. This project is not an M&A package, requiring a marathon of all nighters by PwC employees. It’s tallying votes followed by a ceremonial appearance with free brand advertising. Any fees they charge are certainly minimal compared with the notional benefit of the shout out they receive for showing up.

Finally, instead of promising an “investigation,” PwC might offer to see whether there’s really been any real harm done, beyond the embarrassment and finger-wagging in the media. Offer to pay for a survey and analysis of actual viewer reactions to the incident. What did they think of it? Did it mar the viewing experience for them? If the awards show was damaged in the eyes of the viewers, maybe there is some way PwC can make the Academy and the network whole.

I’ve seen video of the incident a few times, and what did I take away? La La Land producer, Jordon Horowitz seemed gracious as he corrected the error, announced Moonlight as the real winner and held up the card. Moonlight producer, Barry Jenkins’ acceptance speech was humble and heartfelt.

Sure, they ought to get the names right the first time, but maybe this flub brought a little bit of spontaneity and humanity to a long evening of TV.