On the Record

Insights and Analysis from Gallatin Public Affairs

Oscar Night: 6 Lessons in Crisis Management

March 2, 2017

by Michelle Cole

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A confession: I tuned into the Academy Awards because I wanted to see what the stars were wearing and how their famous faces were holding up. By the time the show ended, I was obsessed with how the Best Picture blunder threatened a global brand.

The ensuing minute-by-minute news cycle (a 24-hour cycle is so 2009) revealed how PwC – formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers – raced to rescue its reputation. While most businesses and organizations may never get the chance to stumble before an audience of 33 million, Oscar night provides a fascinating case study of how to (and not to) communicate in a crisis:

  • React quickly – and remain engaged. Tim Ryan, the U.S. chairman of PwC, who was in the theater watching La La Land announced and then renounced as Best Picture, told the New York Times, “My philosophy in life is bad news doesn’t age well.” PwC apologized and promised an investigation via Twitter within hours of its mistake. Ryan’s life philosophy is smart PR but in this case his company may have even been a bit slow. The Twitter-verse – which now drives the news-cycle – demands instant response with updates as emerging events and new information demands.
  • Own the problem at the top. It may have been tempting to put a low-level spokesperson under the glare. PcW issued a second (and more expansive) written statement under Ryan’s name on Monday. He also spent the day doing interviews. This signals how seriously the company viewed its mistake.
  • Consolidate and control the damage. Brian Cullinan, the PwC partner and Matt Damon lookalike, who handed Warren Beatty the wrong envelope, has been banned from the Oscar stage for life along with partner Martha Ruiz, who also failed to quickly follow “proper protocols.” PwC identified Cullinan as the culprit in its public statements and he is clearly the one who must be sacrificed to save the PwC brand. The drama conjures Mr. Spock’s death scene in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn,” when Spock evokes “Kobayashi Maru,” the ultimate test of character and resourcefulness in a no-win training situation. A dying Spock reminds Captain Kirk: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one.”
  • Target the right media outlets. Ryan didn’t call a mea culpa press conference. He did talk with media outlets — from USA Today to Variety — ensuring his side of the story got out broadly and to key audiences. Ryan was reportedly booked to go on CNN but canceled. Probably a good idea, as live TV is not the best place to be as a crisis unfolds.
  • Damage control must avoid any hint of cover-up. PwC has tabulated Oscar winners for 83 years and the company markets itself on Twitter and its website as the celebrity consulting firm. Cullinan and Ruiz basked in the spotlight on Oscar night with Cullinan reportedly tweeting numerous times, including just before the Best Picture debacle. Those tweets mysteriously disappeared only to be found by reporters. What lingers is a hint of cover-up.
  • Don’t forget your friends and family. Companies in crisis often forget to talk to those who matter most: their employees. These are the people who can rally to your defense, or if they’re angry enough, strike the final blow. It’s worth noting that Ryan sent an email Monday to ensure employees heard directly from him.

While much of the Twitter storm has passed, PwC will forever play a leading role in one of the most entertaining and educational Oscar nights. This year’s Academy Awards show drew the second lowest ratings in history, but people can’t stop talking about the wild ending. I can’t remember how young (or not) Faye Dunaway looked or even what she was wearing.

Michelle Cole

Partner and Director of Content & Research, Oregon

Michelle Cole is an award-winning journalist, researcher, writer and communications strategist. She leads Gallatin’s communications workshops in which participants learn how to respond to real-life scenarios.

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