4 Lessons from the Oscar Envelope Crisis that Might Save Your Reputation

The fallout from the fiasco at the 2017 Oscars continues with the accounting firm PwC nursing a huge black eye. When one of the firm’s partners mistakenly gave Best Picture presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway the wrong envelope – leading to the announcement that “La La Land” had captured the “Best Picture” prize when, in fact, the winner was “Moonlight” – PwC cast a long shadow over its 83-year-old Academy Awards history and, for the moment anyway, shattered its priceless reputation for precision and accuracy. And even though the “La La Land” team graciously relinquished their statuettes, “Moonlight” never got its full moment in the sun.

Let’s be clear that no one died or was seriously hurt by this mistake. PwC, however, will be the butt of jokes for a while, and may lose its contract with the Academy. The partners responsible for tabulating the results won’t be back next year. Even if PwC remains, the relationship has taken a huge hit. Beating PwC up about the mistake isn’t very productive. The incident however, offers some powerful lessons for us all.

Don’t Tweet/Text/Email While Doing Work

The PwC partner in the wings who was responsible for handing off the envelope, Brian Cullinan, tweeted a photo of Best Actress trophy-holder Emma Stone just before the mix-up. Did his social media glam shot distract him enough to take his eye off the ball?

Whether it was the case with Cullinan or not, tweeting, just like texting or sending email, can be just as dangerous in the workplace as when driving. Multi-tasking takes your mind off the task at hand. Research at Stanford University has even shown that multi-taking lowers cognitive function, causing us to be less productive than undertaking one task at a time. Makes sense. Imagine throwing your spear at the lion charging you, then stopping to tweet to all your friends “About to kill the lion #dontgeteaten.” This likely would not end well.

Be Fully Present

Reading your email while working on a project and talking on the phone is equivalent to having a conversation with someone and looking everywhere else around the room. It’s disrespectful. And chances are you haven’t really listened. Actively listening is essential for effective communication.

I used to live tweet at conferences. A lot. My rationale was that it was a good way to take notes, connect with others at the conference, and increase my followers. I don’t live tweet much anymore. The reality is that, in the process of capturing the interesting nugget, using the right hashtag and crediting the speakers, I often missed out on other content. My attention is bifurcated. Yes, I have snippets of the talk, but they are all taken out of context. I might miss the full thrust of the remarks. So now, I’ve gone back to taking notes by hand so I can be fully aware of what is happening to react and respond in the best possible way.

Avoid Complacency

Arrogance often is at the root of situations gone awry. In an interview with The Huffington Post just a few days before the Oscars, Cullinan was asked what would happen if someone got the wrong envelope. His response: “We would make sure that the correct person was known very quickly,” Cullinan said. “Whether that entails stopping the show, us walking onstage, us signaling to the stage manager — that’s really a game-time decision, if something like that were to happen. Again, it’s so unlikely.”

The operative phrase here is that he thought it was so unlikely that he and his fellow partner, Martha Ruiz, weren’t mentally prepared, and took longer than they should have to follow their own protocol. Complacency and arrogance set in when we have been at a task for some time and we feel we know what we’re doing. We let down our guard or we simply have blinders on and can’t see what’s coming.

When we do crisis planning, we tell people to imagine the worst possible things that could happen. It’s not enough to plan for them. You have to make sure that people are prepared to act. That is why hospitals and emergency responders do drills so that when panic and shock set in, they can still act.

Step Up – Fast!

On Oscars night, his film might have lost the most coveted prize, but producer Jordan Horowitz wins. “La La Land” acceptance speeches had gone on for more than two minutes – a lifetime in TV time – while people scurried about behind them. It might have been PwC partners who cleared the fog. Or it might have been show host Jimmy Kimmel. Instead, Horowitz steps up, strides toward the mic, and says, “I’m sorry, no. There’s a mistake. ‘Moonlight,’ you guys won best picture.” And he followed it with, “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from ‘Moonlight.’” It was gracious. It was authentic. It had to be painful, but Horowitz proved himself a winner regardless of who held the gold-plated statue.

In the end, the Oscars will go on, PwC will continue to be a great firm despite this stumble, and we all will appreciate great filmmaking that the Academy Awards celebrates. But let’s not forget that a tweet and our own complacency can create havoc. Just ask Brian Cullinan.

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