April 4, 2017

Managing Mishaps: Lessons from the Oscars

Hollywood really does offer second chances, even to its accounting experts.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently announced that its CPA firm of record, PriceWaterHouseCoopers (PWC), will still handle the balloting and accounting work at the Oscars ceremony.

This recognizes that the now-notorious snafu at this year’s ceremony — in which the wrong Best Picture winner was announced — was certainly atypical for the accounting giant. It has officiated in this role for decades without incident, and any sophisticated user of their services understands this has nothing to do with the giant firm’s core competencies.

But all of that mattered little on Oscar night. The entertainment world and millions of viewers watched as the wrong envelope was handed to Warren Beatty (by one of the firm’s partners in an apparent moment of starstruck distraction).

Jordan Horowitz, producer of "La La Land," shows the envelope revealing "Moonlight" as the true winner of best picture at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Presenter Warren Beatty and host Jimmy Kimmel look on from right. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

PWC will probably remember the incident for a long time to come, even with the sigh of relief that the “Oscars account” remains in the door. But the snafu created a teachable moment for all of us about preparing for the unpredictable when the stakes are high.

While we (and most at PWC) may never be on the Oscars stage, many of us find ourselves in high-stakes, public situations—from business meetings to media appearances to job interviews— that involve technology that can go wrong or have other elements of potential human error.

In a recent article on the Oscars for Slate, James B. Meigs, an expert on disasters (the literal kind), notes that routine is a prime ingredient of mishaps, because it creates complacency. He also notes that having senior execs of the firm hand out the envelopes further creates complacency because they assume they are overqualified for the simple task.

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“Staying focused while doing simple, repetitive tasks is a challenge for most people, but there is evidence that less senior workers are sometimes more attentive — the anxiety that comes from being new to a job appears to help keep people alert,” writes Meigs.

But aside from ‘stay focused,’ there are a few other takeaways that PR professionals can learn and ultimately share from this incident:

Prepare for the unknown: Reviewing the Oscars presentation, it seems at first that Beatty is horsing around when he opens the envelope mistakenly containing the best actress prize for Emma Stone, of “La La Land.” As the seconds tick on, he appears more and more perplexed, before he takes the easiest way out: Passing the buck. Beatty hands the envelope to his “Bonnie and Clyde” costar and fellow presenter Faye Dunaway.

Dunaway also makes a bad choice: Assuming the information on the card was somehow correct, she omits Stone’s name and simply reads “La La Land,” thus setting up the embarrassing spectacle in which the cast and producers of that film make it through a couple of short, unearned victory speeches as the matter gets sorted out.

Beatty, Dunaway and the other presenters should have been coached about what to do in case of a mishap, and the Academy should invest some time in training each year for anyone who presents (even if it’s in the form of a letter that goes to busy stars a few weeks before the telecast). While there was no way to act subtly to insulate the viewer and audience from the mistake, “We seem to have the wrong envelope” would have caused far less disruption as the right prize was bestowed.

Acknowledge mistakes: Beatty, who has spent his career in situations in which you can pause the camera and reshoot, wasn’t well equipped to sort all this out live in front of nearly 40 million people as dozens of interested parties sat breathlessly in the audience and the telecast producers looked at their watches. Not everyone can be Bill Clinton improvising his State of the Union speech when the teleprompter fails. That’s where good coaching comes in. (Retroactively, Beatty did take the mic and explain what happened on-air).

Public figures — including business and political leaders — who do live or recorded interviews should know that it’s better to pause and ask for clarification, or admit a mistake when applicable, rather than stumble on and risk looking like a deer in headlights.

Don’t throw blame around: When the mistake is someone else’s — a producer, host or technician — it’s best just to state in neutral terms that something appears to have gone wrong. Which leads to …

Show grace under pressure: Jordan Horowitz emerged as the hero of this affair. He’s the guy who, after making brief acceptance comments as a producer of “La La Land,” secured the proper envelope, interrupted his friends and told America that “Moonlight is best picture. This is not a joke.” He then quite gracefully embraced the proper winner, Barry Jenkins, in congratulations, while someone else might have simply stormed off the stage, annoyed.

The playwright Oscar Wilde once said, “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.”

While it’s impossible to control all aspects of a mass media situation, a well-coached media figure will almost never lose control of how to react.

By: Adam Dickter