Crisis Communications: Dare we take a human approach?

No business like show business…

Price Waterhouse Cooper has prestigious clients all over the world, but the Oscars was the feather in their cap. The event is nowhere near their biggest earner, but boy is it high profile. You all know the story by now; when it came time to announce who won Best Picture, there was a mix-up, and the presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were given the wrong envelope. Lala Land was announced as Best Picture instead of Moonlight.

Chaos ensued. Men in headsets appeared on the stage. The mistake was corrected within minutes, but not before inflicting unnecessary confusion and disappointment; not to mention tearing strips from PWC’s carefully manicured and pristine reputation.

The typically corporate response

The immediate response from the company was textbook. Using an approach we have covered here on Wilde Words, they issued a statement apologising and promising a full explanation. Here it is in full:

We sincerely apologize to “Moonlight,” “La La Land,” Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for Best Picture. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred.

We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, ABC, and Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.


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 A follow up statement was issued the following Monday morning, that had most certainly been combed through by highly-paid lawyers:

PwC takes full responsibility for the series of mistakes and breaches of established protocols during last night’s Oscars. PwC partner Brian Cullinan mistakenly handed the back-up envelope for Actress in a Leading Role instead of the envelope for Best Picture to presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Once the error occurred, protocols for correcting it were not followed through quickly enough by Mr. Cullinan or his partner.

We are deeply sorry for the disappointment suffered by the cast and crew of “La La Land” and “Moonlight.” We sincerely apologize to Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Jimmy Kimmel, ABC, and the Academy, none of whom was at fault for last night’s errors. We wish to extend our deepest gratitude to each of them for the graciousness they displayed during such a difficult moment.

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. 

It’s the perfect corporate response in theory; appropriately contrite but measured, carefully worded, it assigns blame squarely on the two individuals representing PWC on the night, while subtly reinforcing that their protocols are correct and have always worked in the past. The company distanced themselves from the crisis as much as it was safe to do without being accused of shirking responsibility.

The language and tone are entirely corporate. There is no mention of a review of processes. The statement says “PWC takes full responsibility” rather than “We take full responsibility”. It’s appropriate but essentially bland. It explains what happened on Oscars night, but doesn’t explain why. It lacks a human element.

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A human approach to human error

Let’s imagine – for a moment – a human-led approach to the response.

Instead of issuing a statement, PWC would hold a press conference. Brian Cullinan would be there to speak for himself, and he would tell the truth about why the mistake happened. He would speak in plain English. The statement he would read might go something like this:

On Saturday night, I was trusted with one of the most important jobs in the show business. Surrounded by some of the world’s biggest stars, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the atmosphere. I was a little overwhelmed, and I took some pictures to post on social media. I took my eye off the ball and I gave Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty the wrong envelope. I’m sorry.

Who knows if this imagined statement would have gone down better, but my theory is that it just might have worked, and here’s why:

  • It has an authentic voice – it doesn’t hide behind legal-ese or corporate jargon
  • It’s true, and it  fits with that people already know i.e. that Brian Cullinan had been posting photos on Twitter
  • It’s relatable – can’t we all relate to getting a little flustered when surrounded by celebrity superstars at the Oscars?

What’s your take? Should organisations move toward a more human approach to crisis communications? I want to hear from YOU in the comments.

public-relations-katie-harringtonKatie Harrington is a Public Relations professional based in Galway, Ireland. Her book, Strategic Communications: The Science Behind the Art launched in November. Katie has worked with global brands including Emirates Airline and Allianz, as well as the Irish parliament and Qatar’s semi-government oil and gas company Nakilat. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.




4 thoughts on “Crisis Communications: Dare we take a human approach?

  1. Tatjana Harms says:

    In general, I agree that the human type of response in crisis situations is the more appropriate approach.

    That said, it depends on whom it is intended to: the human approach is your approach of choice if your key audience is the general, “human” public, (i.e. viewers across the globe in this case). Not the corporate one.

    It could be, however, that PWC wasn’t addressing the general public at all but rather trying to preserve its reputation with their relevant audiences: the Academy, ex, current and potential clients, competition, and regulators.
    Looking at their response from that angle, makes it all more appropriate.

    • Wilde Words says:

      Here’s my question; why is telling the truth of what happened in an authentic, human voice seen as the less professional way to maintain these relationships? What happened is widely known, so trying to cover it up or even distance themselves from it is futile.

  2. Laura says:

    I’m 100% of the opinion that communications should be much more authentic and that, when something like this happens, it shouldn’t need to be dressed up in so much jargon.

    HOWEVER, we have to remember that, as a society, we do expect a certain degree of professionalism and yes, that extends to the vocabulary we use. It’s OK to say that things should be a little more authentic when they don’t affect us, but I can easily foresee a situation where, for example, my child came to some harm in school. Would I be OK with the principal saying, “Yeah, we fucked up there. Sorry about that”? Absolutely not.

    The more money on the line and the greater the reputations at risk, the less chances a company will take with their wording. There’s a fine line between being authentic and being perceived as blasé. I know myself I’d always prefer to err on the side of caution!

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