The Great Oscars Debacle and what we can all learn from it

Almost two months ago now, the great and the good of the entertainment industry across the globe were deeply shaken by the biggest mistake in the history of the Oscars – the awarding of the Best Picture prize to La La Land, when in fact Moonlight had won. The blunder – and the subsequent embarrassing and drawn out kerfuffle on stage – also left professional event organisers around the world shell shocked. Unsure whether to laugh or cry, for the next few days eventers everywhere went about their business whilst the little voices in their heads whispered “could that happen to me?”

Oscar statuette

Since then, the debacle has been analysed, those at fault have apologised, and we have a much better understanding of what went wrong. We quickly learnt that global accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers were behind the error which caused Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway to be left holding the wrong envelope, but there have also been a number of in depth reports – including this one from The Week - explaining what happened.

As so often with a catastrophic cock up, there were a number of factors at play:

 *** Instead of gold envelopes with a white label, PwC had opted for a red envelope with elegant gold lettering, which looked the part, but were much harder to read under pressure and in poor lighting.

 *** Two PwC partners, Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan, were positioned in the wings, one stage left and one stage right. They both had an envelope for every single award – a failsafe in case a presenter approached the stage from the wrong side. That meant that half of each of their envelopes were not required, but remained in their possession (like little red ticking time bombs…).

 *** Ruiz and Cullinan are very senior partners within the firm. Arguably, a more junior employee may have taken the responsibility more seriously and/or been less confident, leading to double and triple checks.

 *** Immediately before the mix up, Cullinan tweeted a picture of winner Emma Stone with her award backstage, so there is evidence to suggest his mind wasn’t 100% on the task in hand.

 *** In order to guard against leaks, only a tiny team of people at PwC had the list of winners, so no operational staff were able to intervene quickly after the wrong winner was announced.

Obviously this wasn’t the greatest disaster the world has ever known. Nobody died, the right person got the glory in the end, and if you really believe that all publicity is good publicity, then PwC probably had the best results ever from their sponsorship. However, in the world of events management, this is the kind of thing that could have cost somebody their job or lost an agency a client.

So could it happen to us? Look – in the events industry we disaster manage constantly. The power fails, a delivery doesn’t arrive, the chef can’t get hold of any clams – we always expect the unexpected, and we can generally find solutions to all of the above without the client or guests ever knowing that anything went wrong. But could that exact Oscars scenario happen to us? The short answer is, probably not. Here are the reasons why:

 - We triple check everything – conference badges, event programmes, printed menus, tickets – nothing gets to the event without having at least three sets of eyes on it.

 - In awards scenarios, we insist on being in the loop. We rehearse speakers, slides and music. We position a member of our team next to the stage to hand out the awards in the correct order. We position another member of the team with the audio visual technician to check that the slides are correct and the appropriate song plays at the right moment. In the event that the speaker skips an award (yes, this does happen sometimes) our professional team have always been able to reorder things and react quickly enough to prevent anyone realising.

 - We put substance over style every time. That gold-on-red envelope design would never have passed muster in our office. An event has to look good, granted, but it has to fulfil its basic function first and foremost.

Above all else though, we’re honest with our clients and their sponsors/partners. Let’s be frank – having two senior execs passing out the envelopes between taking photos of celebs was a recipe for disaster.

Red envelope

Sometimes, the most important person in a company isn’t the best person for the job. Your CEO might have an incredible financial and strategic brain, but if he or she is a terrifyingly dull public speaker, find someone with charisma for your annual conference instead. If your Sales Director is great at planning and written communications but actually quite shy and retiring face to face, don’t make them staff your exhibition stand.

Sometimes, your event organiser has to stand up to you, and do what’s right for the project as a whole. It takes guts to turn to a client and say “Do you know what Bob? That anecdote about you on the stag weekend is hilarious, but it probably isn’t quite right as an introduction to Shami Chakrabarti” or “I love the colour green too, and I get that our event coincides with St Patrick’s Day, but I’m still not convinced that offering a buffet comprised entirely of green food is the right way to go for this five star fundraiser”.

So the next time your event organiser disagrees with you, just stop to think about why they might be putting their job on the line over the issue, think about their years of experience, and put your trust in them. Hopefully that will avoid you having your very own Oscars experience.

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