There are times when a crisis unfolds before your very eyes – if televised, before millions of viewers.
The Oscars 2017 is a case in point.
In such circumstances there is no denying the cock-up or the fact that your organisation is at fault. Effective crisis communication needs to come in to play – and fast, to counter the effects of negative publicity.
The 89th Academy Awards has been overshadowed by a blunder in which the incorrect movie was announced for Best Picture.
As the cast and crew of La La Land were on stage giving thanks for their big win, it was announced that Moonlight had in fact been awarded the gong.
It later emerged the wrong envelope was handed to Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, resulting in a gaffe which has us all forgetting who won what, and who wore what – and discussing the fall-out from a mistake seen by millions.
To be fair, this kind of thing has happened before. At the 2015 Miss Universe pageant comedian and TV personality Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner.
He stated that Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutierrez Arevalo, was the winner – but had to admit that in fact she was the first runner-up and the actual winner was Miss Philippines Pia Alonzo Wurzbach. This was made worse by the fact that the crown had been placed on Miss Colombia’s head and she had to suffer the indignity of having it removed.
However it seems a shame that poor Warren Beatty is now being slated on social media for “doing a Steve Harvey” – when if we want to be particular about the facts, Steve Harvey had the correct envelope, he just misread it. And it was Beatty’s co-presenter Faye Dunaway who announced the wrong name for the Oscar.
But such is the nature of this sort of crisis that people will make as much comedy out of it as they can.
So how should an organisation go about managing public relations in the midst of such an undeniable and enormous faux pas?
Put it in perspective
Nobody died. There was no danger to safety here.
Disappointment and embarrassment is the worst thing to have happened.
The cast of La La Land already had a bumper night, picking up awards for Best Actress, Best Director, Best Original Music Score, Best Cinematography and Best Production Design.
Of course nobody would want this sort of thing to happen, but a crisis manager needs to gain perspective before deciding how to react.
Apologise and explain
There’s no getting around it. It happened. Your organisation was to blame. A heartfelt ‘sorry’ is in order, and the public will want to know how this happened.
The official statement from Oscars accountants Price Waterhouse Cooper said:
“We sincerely apologize 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.
“The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred.
“We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, ABC, and Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.”
This covers all of the required bases perfectly. It apologises, explains and thanks those involved for their handling of the matter. It is nice and succinct, and doesn’t really dwell too much on what happened or point the finger of blame.
Do not seek a scapegoat
The temptation may be to track down the one person who handed over that wrong envelope - and fire them.
But for the reason given above (nobody died) then do not succumb to scapegoating an individual for what is obviously a system error.
It will just make the organisation look petty in taking retribution against one cog in the machine.
Secrecy is no doubt massively important here – but if one person is responsible for handing over the envelopes, then this is obviously not a foolproof system and an extra layer of double-checking the envelopes and the results needs to be implemented.
Sadly in this case Brian Cullinan - one of the two accountants responsible for handing over the winning envelopes - has placed himself in the public domain. He has put himself in the public eye by tweeting and lapping up all of his own moment of fame so much that he’s actually forgotten the day job - and made a right royal mess of it.
Investigate and correct
By all means investigate the breakdown which caused this embarrassing error, and agree a system by which it will never happen again.
A further statement can then be put out after the dust settles, giving a fuller picture of how this occurred and what steps have been taken to prevent a repeat in the future.
By the very fact that Emma Stone had already picked up her Best Actress Oscar before this error, and had held onto the envelope it has emerged that two envelopes are printed for each award. Not disposing of the duplicate envelope after the award is given has caused this mistake - and this needs to be looked at.
Have a sense of humour
Social media makes it possible for people to poke fun, spread conspiracy theories and even express outrage at what has happened. Any crisis management team should factor in a social media spokesperson to deal with the aftermath, and if possible discuss a tone of voice with all those involved.
The big mistake Miss Universe made following their 2015 gaffe was allowing Steve Harvey to tweet out his own apology – in which he mis-spelled the names of the pageant winners and made things worse.
In this case, it seems a sense of humour is acceptable, particularly since others have started to cash in on the gaffe.
Sadly at the end of a very long week in showbusiness, the two accountants at the centre of the mistake have had to have security allocated to them and their families.
Again it’s all about perspective. I’ve heard people getting really precious and sanctimonious about it, but they pulled the wrong name out of an envelope. That’s it. The only thing that died was the world laughing.
The company involved has done all they can to protect their staff, which is the right thing to do. But perhaps a lesson should be learned here that people behind the scenes should stay that way. They should not court fame - as it can come back to bite them in the event of an error.
But this whole episode has provided a talking point and will generate endless column inches and parodies, so The Academy should play along with it and embrace the extra free publicity.
Next year’s viewing figures will go through roof so what actual brand damage has been done? I’d say none.
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