And the Oscar for Best Reputation Management goes to… The Oscars

A week-on from the Best Picture mix-up, Charles Lankester of Ruder Finn discusses how brands can learn from the academy’s handling of the PR fallout that ensued

It has been quite a week for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organisation responsible for the Oscars. Naming La La Land the ‘best film’ over Moonlight by mistake meant the final 90 seconds overshadowed the whole show.

But hold on. Out of the car crash that ended the 2017 Oscars, we have experienced something extraordinary. Possibly the best, most nimble, effective – and, yes, ruthless – bit of reputation management seen for a long time.

Reputational crises place companies and people mercilessly in the spotlight. Those who are smart know how to perform well on stage and (sometimes) turn the situation to their advantage. Any executive who has oversight for reputation at their organisation would be well advised to use the academy’s playbook in what to ‘do’ if disaster ever strikes them. These are the highlights:

Disasters happen

Life isn’t fair. The envelopes got mixed up. However, almost immediately there was the whiff of something a bit odd. One of the two PwC partners in charge of the envelopes was tweeting a picture of La La Land actress Emma Stone a few minutes before the mix up. You’d think he had other things on his mind. (Note: his tweets were quickly deleted. Surprise, surprise.) And when the wrong name was read out, Team PWC didn’t jump in immediately. They looked as confused as everyone else. Not great.

Move fast

In the fall-out, I would imagine there was a ‘meeting without coffee’ between PwC and the academy. The story began to take shape. Human error was the most likely cause. PwC – with great encouragement from their client, I imagine – went public on February 27 and said “at the end of the day, we made a human error” and they took “full responsibility for the series of mistakes and breaches of established protocols”. This was smart: the beginnings of a firewall isolating the academy from PWC’s blunder.

Be decisive

The academy made it clear that the two long-time PwC partners would never work on the Oscars again. Clean, surgical, fast and effective. Again, life isn’t fair. You have to feel for the people involved. But it’s business, it’s not personal. It was now increasingly clear that the fault was with the two PwC staff. The academy was absolutely right to tell them goodbye.

Communicate well

Perhaps the most powerful part of the academy’s crisis management strategy was giving an exclusive interview to the news agency Associated Press. “Breaking her silence four days after the biggest blunder in the 89-year history of the Academy Awards”, stated the AP interview with Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the academy. The headline of the story said it all: “Accountants in Oscar mistake are off the show.”

Be human

What I also liked about the AP story was how Boone Isaacs sounded very human. Her upset and frustration were clear to see and read. She told them: “Of course there was the last 90 seconds. And what angered me, I would say, in these last couple days is this 90 seconds and moving to the side the brilliance of the day.” Despite the slight over-optimism towards the media,  she managed the situation well. She is the lioness to her Oscar cubs and PwC put her babies in danger. Bad call.

Remember the power of words

Unsurprisingly, the academy gets this. Even in our iPhone, fast-food, instant, processed world, a beautiful or powerful phrase will always prevail. As Boone Isaacs – or her public relations people – so elegantly phrased the experience of La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz: “He went from a nominee to a winner to a presenter in a matter of minutes.”

Choose the right channels

The choice of going straight to AP for the interview was very smart. Although I am sure there are many ‘influencers’ out there who were algorithmically better candidates, AP gets you to everyone that matters. As AP says: “More than half the world’s population sees our content every day.” So the organisation makes an ideal choice given that billions of people saw the galaxy-sized Oscars mistake.

Of course 2017 will see many more stories like this, as every year does. It still amazes me how many corporations get it catastrophically wrong when there are so many examples of how to get it right with a bit of intelligence.

The Oscars will prevail, PwC will be fine and the two bungling partners, I am sure, will emerge better and stronger from this. But in terms of how to manage a reputational hand grenade with the pin pulled out, business would do well to learn from the 2017 Oscars. There is no better case study this year, so far at least.

Charles Lankester is the Hong Kong-based EVP of Ruder Finn’s global reputation and risk management practice


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