re·fined

Envelopegate at the Oscars mars PricewaterhouseCoopers’ impeccable reputation

Everybody makes mistakes, and when it’s your first one in 82 years of service it can’t be that bad.

Can it?

No one was killed. No one was injured. Okay, so a few people were embarrassed and a handful had their dreams crushed on international television, but really. . . in the grand scheme of things. . how bad was it?

Truth? It was pretty bad as it could get for the esteemed accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

By now, I’m sure you know the story, but here’s a quick recap. It was Oscar night. Everyone was tired after a long evening in their seats. They were hopped up on candy that fell from the sky and they were anxious to see the evening end. Things had gone off without a hitch (which is unusual enough for a live show with so many women in high heels and potentially revealing gowns) and they were minutes from the final – and biggest – announcement.

Those who were keeping score were expecting LaLa Land to win. The movie’s star Emma Stone had taken the Best Actress category just moments before, so it felt like a lock. The presenting honors went to veteran stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. They did the usual banter, announced the nominees, then Beatty opened “the envelope”. He hesitated, maybe struggling to read without his glasses. Then he looked around and stalled a bit more. The audience and Dunaway all nervously laughed at Beatty’s attempt to ratchet up the suspense. Dunaway chided him to get on with it already – the joke wearing thin. Beatty then handed her the envelope and she read the winner: LaLa Land. Cue music. Cue swarm of producers and actors and others pouring on to the stage. Acceptances speeches begin and all the while something else was going on in the background.

The audience began to get nervous and finally someone grabbed the mic and made the announcement: LaLa Land didn’t win. The actual winner for Best Picture was Moonlight. To convince that movie’s cast and crew that it wasn’t a cruel joke, someone held up the winner’s card which clearly showed that the wrong film had been announced.

What? How could Dunaway have gotten it wrong? As the new cast and crew swarmed the stage and the other was forced to graciously (and confusedly) step back, Beatty stepped in to say that the moment he opened the envelope, he knew it was wrong and that was why he stumbled and stalled. “I wasn’t trying to be funny.”

After the dust settled, we all found out what really happened. PwC accountant Brian Cullinan had handed Beatty the wrong envelope. Instead of Best Picture, he handed the actor the duplicate copy of the Best Actress envelope – the award that had been announced just a few minutes before.

Before we put all the blame on the man who only had one job for the evening and blew it; let’s consider the fact that both Beatty and Dunaway had a chance to raise a flag and say hey, this card isn’t right. (It had the wrong category and actress Emma Stone’s name on it in addition to the film name). We can only assume that they were caught up in the pressure of the moment and went with the most logical response. (Come on, we all assumed LaLa Land was going to win).

Meanwhile, it took several minutes before the accountant realized the mistake, notified the production staff and the staff halted the proceedings.

On the morning after, all eyes were on the accounting firm that had served The Oscars so well for so many years. US Chairman Tim Ryan owned up on behalf of his company saying, “[Cullinan] feels very, very terrible and horrible. He is very upset about this mistake. And as a firm, given that he is a partner of our firm, it is also my mistake and our mistake and we all feel very bad.”

Sounds like a genuine mea culpa to me and yet the gossip around the backstage door is that PwC’s impeccable reputation has taken a strong hit. Strong enough, perhaps, to force the Academy to sever their historical ties!

Nigel Currie, an independent London-based branding specialist told the Chicago Tribune, “They had a pretty simple job to do and messed it up spectacularly. They will be in deep crisis talks on how to deal with it.”

There is one “fact” that is making the situation worse. Not surprisingly, it involves social media. Several outlets have said that the accountant in question was busy fangirling and Tweeting about Emma Stone just moments before the mix-up. If his attention was elsewhere, it’s easy to see how he could grab the wrong envelope. His tweet has been deleted, which makes it seem even more likely that it was the cause of it all.

It is hard to imagine that PwC doesn’t have rules about its employees hanging out on social media while working The Oscars. We all get star struck, but you’d think The Oscar accountants would have learned how to keep their school-girl giddy to themselves until after the ceremonies.

When asked if he was concerned about his company’s rep, Tim Ryan said, “I expect us to get something like this right and our focus right now is just on making sure the academy and the rest of the folks know that and the rest will play out. We are very proud of being associated with the Academy Awards. It’s good for our brand. It’s good for our people. So while I am concerned I hope we will be judged on how quickly we reacted and owned up to the issue.”

We hope so, too. We all make mistakes. It’s how we deal with them after that matters.  And there’s a little something called “intentions” to be considered, too. This isn’t a case where employees conspired to hide the truth from the public. This was an unconscious screw-up that’s happened before in other venues. (Remember Miss Universe?) Unfortunately for Mr. Cullinan, his mistake happened on one of the most high-profile events of the year.

Should the Academy replace PwC after 82 years of loyal service? No. Should PwC lose reputation points because of the flub? Again, I say no. Should the accountant who made the mistake get fired? For making a mistake? No. For Tweeting instead of paying attention to his extremely important job? Yes.

What do you think? Does PwC have to fire the accountant in order to regain control of their reputation? Or can they stand on their past record with nothing more than the apologies they’ve already made?

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