March 17, 2017

Mistakes happen. Despite any team’s collective diligence toward preventing them, mistakes sometimes just happen. And in the case of the Best Picture Award during the Oscars, that mistake was a doozy. As if the error itself wasn’t big enough, the response and reaction (or lack thereof) compounded it to make the circumstances far worse. By the time anyone had stepped on stage to correct the mistake, the wrong winners had made nearly two minutes’ worth of acceptance speeches… and the actual winners, once finally announced, had no time left to shine in the moment that was rightfully theirs.

And although it’s uncomfortable to point fingers, in the end, there were two people responsible for preventing the mistake from happening, and those same two people were also responsible for recovery in the event of a wrongly-announced winner. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) employees Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz were to have memorized every winner and were expected to follow established protocol of stepping on stage immediately to correct it the moment the wrong name was announced. Although the handing-off of the wrong envelope was Cullinan’s fault, the 2-minute delay was as much Ruiz’ fault as her partner’s. The slow recovery showed many errors that could have been avoided.

An interview prior to the Academy Awards ceremony offered a foreshadowing of what was to come – Cullinan and Ruiz weren’t aware of the exact protocol at all prior to the event.

We would make sure that the correct person was known very quickly. 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. It’s so unlikely. ~ Brian Cullinan.

According to producers from the show, the protocol was very clear and many were confused by why Ruiz and Cullinan didn’t react appropriately. What can we learn from PwC, Cullinan and Ruiz’ unfortunate mishap?

  • Crisis management is a challenging strategy and it doesn’t happen effectively on the fly or after-the-fact. Planning is critical and we must take pro-active steps to prepare for any worst-case scenario.
  • Communication is crucial. Everyone involved should know what the recovery plan is, and what to expect from others.
  • Humans often freeze when the crisis unfolds. Practicing and training – frequently – for bad scenarios allows us to feel confident and comfortable taking swift action.
  • There is great value in how quickly we respond. When we’re prepared, and everyone knows what is expected we can react appropriately and promptly to minimize the damage.

Ultimately, it’s quite possible the mistake made during the Academy Awards could have or would have happened eventually. It’s now clear how important knowing and following protocol is in preventing an error from becoming an even bigger mistake.