Thought Leadership

A Crisis Playbook for the Academy Awards

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Presenters sometimes make mistakes at awards shows, but this year’s Best Picture mix up at the Oscars on Feb. 26 was unforgettable. I barely remember the three hours of entertainment that preceded Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway incorrectly giving the trophy to La La Land instead of actual winner Moonlight.

I watched interviews after the show to hear more about the mistake, and to my amazement, there weren’t any concrete answers — just confusion and several conspiracy theories. A rep for Oscar vote-counters PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) apparently gave Beatty the Best Actress card, which had winner Emma Stone’s printed name on it. But Stone said she kept her card. How could everyone let this happen?

I woke up the next day hoping for an explanation, yet it took until the afternoon for PwC to acknowledge the mistake and declare an investigation. Then, they released a second statement taking full ownership.

In an article published on March 1, PwC’s Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz admitted to The Hollywood Reporter that the company didn’t have a concrete procedure in case the wrong winner card ended up in a presenter’s hands. The protocol was just to stop the snowball effect, whether that meant walking onstage or signaling to the stage manager.

In other words: saving the Oscars is a spur-of-the-moment operation for PwC and the Academy, and the event badly needs a crisis playbook. Here’s how they should start:

  1. Plan for the worst. Aside from presenter errors, a lot can go wrong on live television. The audio can go out. Someone can trip on the way up the stairs to receive an award. The stage can be rushed by a stranger. Onsite celebrities can send inappropriate tweets. These are just some of the many potential scenarios. For live events like the Oscars, there should always be a prepared plan that key members of the staff are familiar with. It helped this year that host Jimmy Kimmel kept the mood light and assisted in diffusing some awkward moments onstage.
  2. Prepare a statement. In today’s media environment, publications cover events live. Information travels quickly. PwC and the Academy need to have an immediate statement prepared to give to the media.
  3. Select a spokesperson. It’s important to select someone the media can get information from. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs or one of its board members needs to share what they know as quickly as possible if a crisis is unfolding. This includes telling people that an investigation in process, which PwC waited until the next day to do.
  4. Be as transparent as possible. With live events, it’s important to always acknowledge the issue and then let the audience know what you plan on doing. The response delay at the Oscars caused unnecessary embarrassment to both Beatty and Dunaway, as well as the creators behind La La Land and Moonlight.
  5. Provide timely information. Waiting days to apologize is not a wise solution. PwC can take the hit for making mistakes (for example, one of the two backstage reps took a photo of Stone prior to the Best Picture announcement), but it’s ultimately up to the Academy to provide regular updates and not wait for PwC to take the fall alone. The organizations have a strong 83-year relationship; it’s assumed they can work together to provide relevant information.
  6. Take ownership and don’t let others fall on the sword. At the end of the day, it’s the Academy’s responsibility what happens on and off the stage. It is not the responsibility of the talent, their publicists or the studios executives. Maybe next year they’ll have a better plan for preventing a mess like this.

Scott Pansky is co-founder/partner of Allison + Partners in Los Angeles. He also serves as an executive committee member of PRSA’s Entertainment and Sports Professional Interest Section. 

3 Comments

  • Your playbook is what I have called just “a process” to my clients, but I think a playbook is cooler.
    A plan invited rigidity, which never serves a crisis since each one is different. Not to mention that planning has the reputation for being onerous and a playbook sounds active and in the moment. With your permission I will start calling my process recommendation a playbook.

  • Scott, you are correct that PWC and the Academy should have been more proactive in regards to the Oscars’ snafu. In addition, the parties involved should have conducted several crisis preparation sessions where they practiced and reviewed potential scenarios. By doing this, the reponse to a crisis situation is intuitive. Scott, when I think of preparing for potential problems, first responders come to mind. They continuously practice in order to be prepared for any emergency.

  • A playbook for the Oscars is 100% necessary. This year’s incident definitely proved Hollywood is not perfect. I am honestly surprised PWC did not already have this sort of plan in the making. You would think it being the Oscars they would have a back up plan for everything that could possibly go wrong. PWC should have performed better in crisis management and take quicker action to address the issue. For an award show as big as the Oscars, they sure are slacking in public relations.

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