They had one job.
PricewaterhouseCoopers, the vaunted accounting firm that has lorded over Oscars secrets for decades, usually relies on the Academy Awards for some easy, free publicity as tax season approaches.
The company’s public relations department likes to play up an aura of Hollywood lore around its 83-year run as caretaker of the winners list, treating the act of looking after a handful of envelopes as a sort of mysterious ceremonial tradition that can only be entrusted to the world’s most elite accountants.
That image came crashing down within the span of a few minutes on Sunday night. And all it took was a single, misplaced envelope.
As the shock and pandemonium of seeing the night’s biggest moment blow up in such a spectacular fashion began to wear off, people looked around for someone to blame. It didn’t take long for eyes to shift from a hapless Warren Beatty to the accountants running the show behind the scenes.
The firm’s Twitter mentions were soon swamped with reactions from critics, some mocking, some angry, and some simply bemused at how the firm could flub such a seemingly simple task.
PwC issued an apologetic statement hours later in which it owned up to its fault in the mess.
“At the end of the day we made a human error,” Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman and senior partner of PwCtold USA Today in a follow-up interview Monday.
“We made a mistake. What happened was, our partner on the left side of the stage, Brian Cullinan, he handed the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty. And then the second we realized that we notified the appropriate parties and corrected the mistake.”
By Monday morning, PwC was having perhaps its biggest turn in the public spotlight evera moment that likely surpassed much more consequential controversies like its role in the financial crisis and a string of rule-breaking settlements in the early 2000s in terms of media attention. Usually subject only to some annual passing intrigue over its secret-keeping customs, the firm now took center stage before an audience of millions.
It’s often said that there’s no such thing as bad press, but when it comes to a firm that individual and institutional clients expect to meticulously catalog their finances, botching a simple envelope hand-off might qualify, here.
PwC is one of the biggest and best accounting firms in the world. It’s one of only a handful of big companies widely recognized as a longtime, undisputed leader of their industry. The Oscars debacle, as cringeworthy as it was, doesn’t really change that.
Yet as taxpayers look for a name they can trust to adeptly handle their IRS bills this April, an association with such a high-profile meltdown doesn’t look good, even if it does get the firm’s name in the minds of millions of people who might otherwise never have thought twice about it.
In any case, it’s doubtful that the accounting firm will ever again be able to credibly bill itself as the esteemed keeper of some sacred Hollywood custom. While previous years’ shows have seen a few similar accidents, there has never been one of such epic proportion, and no one’s likely to forget should the firm make its usual pre-Oscars press round in years to come.
In fact, there’s even some speculation that the firm’s long-running partnership with The Academy might be in jeopardy too. Speaking to the New York Times on Monday, brand image expert Andrew Gilman, CEO of crisis communications firm CommCore Consulting Group, told the paper that the firm’s reputation will likely take a major dent:
Im sure there will be a logical explanation for what happened, but theyre going to be the butt of jokes for late-night TV for at least a week, there will be memes written, and I think itll be interesting to see if they hold on to their contract.
As far as damage control goes, there’s little the firm can do to erase the incident from public memory beyond apologizing. As of Monday morning, the brand’s Twitter account was already resolutely plowing forward with unrelated company news to bury the now-embarrassing Oscar promotions.
Much of the promotional push PwC did in the lead-up to the event already looks awfully silly in retrospect. For instance, a particularly prescient piece last week from the Huffington Postwhich partnered with the accounting firm for the showis entitled, “What Would Happen If A Presenter Announced The Wrong Winner At The Oscars?” (Naturally, that post has already fueled a few #OscarsTruthers.)
Perhaps the best outcome PwC can hope for brand-wise is a surge of pitying goodwill from people who think the haters are being too hard on it.
That, or America forgetting the incident once our president inevitably plunges the news cycle back into its usual chaos. PricewaterhouseCoopers who?