PwC Confronts Crisis Over Oscars Blunder

Thom Weidlich 03.02.17


It didn’t take long before PwC LLP, which oversees the voting for the Academy Awards, knew it had a crisis on its hands. The final prize at this year’s Oscars, for best picture, was handed to the wrong movie, La La Land. After much commotion, the real winner, Moonlight, was given the award. It was soon apparent that PwC was at fault. How did it happen and how well did PwC communicate?

PwC,  the U.S. affiliate of Big Four accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, prides itself on its work for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — it’s great marketing. The firm has been counting the Oscar votes for more than 80 years and, alas, screwing up such a basic task, for the first time, is embarrassing.

The flub raised a few questions of interest to crisis communicators.

How Did It Happen?

It turned out that Brian Cullinan, one of the two PwC partners who oversee the voting process, had given the presenters — Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway — the wrong envelope. Why that happened still isn’t clear.

One hypothesis is that a new envelope design — by the academy, not PwC — may have contributed. Another is that, according to The Wall Street Journal, just before the snafu, Cullinan tweeted out a photo from backstage of Emma Stone (pictured), who had just won best actress. He may have been distracted by the tweeting, which the academy had told him not to do. If that’s true, it obviously could have contributed to the crisis.

How Well Was the Mistake Communicated?

During the Feb. 26 ceremony Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, the other PwC partner, each stood in the stage’s opposite wings with duplicate envelopes (Cullinan had the extra best-actress envelope and that’s what he handed Beatty). When the glitch occurred, Cullinan and Ruiz had to confer before they could respond, which ate up time. A statement PwC put out the next night said that once the two realized the gaffe, “protocols for correcting it were not followed through quickly enough.” PwC didn’t elaborate on what those protocols were.

But we have some evidence that procedures for such a situation weren’t clear, which may have contributed to the severity of the crisis.

The Huffington Post, coincidentally, ran a story last week pondering what would happen if a wrong winner were announced at the Oscars. Cullinan and Ruiz were interviewed. The procedure was for the accountants to tell the nearest stage manager, who would tell the show’s producers. The HuffPost paraphrased the accountants as saying that “the exact procedure is unknown because no mistake of that kind has been made in the Oscars’ 88-year history.” Cullinan said, “Again, it’s so unlikely.” Wrong!

It was two La La Land producers (who had already given their acceptance speeches) who announced the error and that Moonlight had won. Surely, someone responsible for the mix-up could have done that?

How Well Did PwC Communicate Afterward?

The slipup occurred just after 9 p.m. Los Angeles time. PwC tweeted its first statement just after midnight. It apologized to those affected and said it was investigating. That day, PwC U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan, who was in the audience, gave several apologetic interviews with media outlets.

That night PwC tweeted another statement, again taking the blame and offering more details. This time it fingered Cullinan. The message ended: “For the past 83 years, the academy has entrusted PwC with the integrity of the awards process during the ceremony, and last night we failed the academy.”

The media focused on that last clause like a klieg light. That’s a good thing. Generally, PwC’s communications around the flub have been laudable, and that quote shows a willingness to take the blame without excuses. Yesterday, PwC and the academy said Cullinan and Ruiz, who now require bodyguards, would no longer work on the Oscars.

Photo Credit: Tinseltown/