By Gail Fitzer, Founder and CEO, Awaken PR
The humiliating but very human failure of two PwC accountants viewed live by millions of people around the world at the Oscars dealt an enormous blow to PwC’s brand and now it’s time for the accounting and professional services firm to do whatever it can to repair its public image.
Taking full responsibility for the unprecedented snafu and apologizing 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 was a smart first step. But barring any legal concerns, PwC should be taking more proactive measures to seize the moment, and narrative, and rescue its public image by turning those Oscar “lemons into lemonade.” Instead it seems to be keeping a low profile and hoping the public will forget the massive blunder that has become the fodder for non-stop punch lines in conversations, on social media and late night comedy shows.
In today’s world where human failure is frequently forgiven especially when it’s accompanied by apologies and sincere remorse (think Adele screw-ups at both the 2016 and 2017 Grammy Awards, or minus the apologies and remorse in a class by himself, Donald Trump being forgiven or getting away with so many ethical violations, outright lies and disparaging remarks against the vast majority of Americans that our heads are spinning), PwC can and should take a number of steps to transform the brand-bruising blunder into a brand-building opportunity. Here are six possibilities for PR spin:
1. PwC should use social media and their website to offer up testimonials from their vast array of Fortune 500 clients who can attest to their generally stellar record of accuracy and integrity.
2. PwC should offer the major media interviews with PwC Global chairman Bob Moritz and U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan in which they should sincerely apologize for the blunder again, talk about the steps they’re taking to ensure no such recurrence at the Oscars, and speak generally about procedures they have in place to ensure integrity and accuracy in the much more mundane accounting and consulting work they do for their multinational clients.
3. PwC could offer major media interviews, op-eds and/or blogs on their website that will get picked up by countless news organizations and drive traffic to their site, in which Moritz and Ryan should speak about why PwC is standing behind their two partners who screwed up on Oscar night—Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz—even if they will no longer be involved in the Oscars ceremony.
In online searches of the good that PwC does, I discovered a very impressive corporate culture and a PwC foundation that funds many great causes but first and foremost among them lists supporting the people of PwC in times of need in their lives, as well as celebrating with them in times of their remembrance and achievement. Speaking about this PwC culture of loyalty to and concern for its employees can certainly begin to change the narrative to a much more positive one for PwC. The PwC Foundation also supports charities at which its employees volunteer at least 25 hours with donations of $2,500 per person per year and since 2001 has donated $6.7 million to “support the people of PwC,” according to the PwC Foundation site.
4. Again, on its website, in blogs and in interviews, Moritz and Ryan can speak about the most dramatic examples of employees or partners whose lives have been positively impacted by the PwC Foundation during tough times in their lives, as well as the other great educational, social entrepreneurship, veteran and humanitarian causes the PwC Foundation supports with donations totaling nearly $50 million.
5. The public is likely to be forgiving and understanding if Culligan steps up and takes responsibility in a self-deprecating manner. In a world in which we are all guilty of being distracted by our cell phones, social media and posting selfies to bolster our own followings and personal brand images—and in which most of us would likely be just as star-struck and tweet-prone at the Oscars—I can see him being interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel or Stephen Colbert, and many other late night show comedians, and mocking himself with humor while sincerely apologizing to all those who were hurt by his faux pas.
He could say something like, “I really screwed up. I was star-struck and tweeting a photo of Emma Stone. I thought I could manage this multitasking thing effectively enough but clearly Emma looked so beautiful and I was so star-struck my brain wiring short-circuited. Then when I realized the screw-up I froze. I mean this is LIVE television we’re talking about.” Of course, Cullinan could be much funnier than that. But who couldn’t understand messing up like that, if they were in Cullinan’s shoes? It could happen to anyone. We’re all human and make mistakes.
6. As part of a late night or major news media interview, Culligan, Moritz or Ryan could squeeze even more lemonade out of those Oscar night lemons by announcing the funding of research studies or nonprofit initiatives that are educating the public about the dangers of driving while using cell phones; or that are researching the damage of cell phone and social media usage to work productivity, or even the ability to stay focused in general, or other repercussions such as addiction, loss of sleep, or the decline in the reading and writing abilities of young people raised in the digital age. Or they could fund initiatives to educate the public about the importance of staying focused on work rather than social media and texting during work hours. They could even create a PSA campaign of their own to bring attention to these issues.
Many of these steps I’ve outlined could not only repair PwC’s brand image, but take advantage of all the negative publicity surrounding the Oscars and turn it into more positive publicity than ever before, boosting its bottom-line profits like never before. After all, Donald Trump turned all his negative publicity into an unprecedented election victory upset to become president of the United States. It’s time to be PR-savvy PwC and spin PwC’s biggest public gaffe ever into its biggest advantage ever. And the time to do it is NOW!
Gail Fitzer is founder and CEO of AWAKEN PR and a former journalist for Reuters, AP and The Hollywood Reporter. AWAKEN PR is a results-driven PR and marketing communications firm specializing raising our clients’ visibility and fueling their success through traditional and digital media.