My bad, Oscar

Grouching on PwC’s envelope slip

Jeffrey Denny

Nobody needs to pile on PwC, the global accounting firm, for its Academy Award fumble of the Best Picture envelope that made Warren Beatty make a face like Dana Carvey imitating Shirley MacLaine imitating her brother eating a lemon.

So I won’t. Except for the following:

To me, at this year’s Oscars, fate triumphed as it should. La La Land was amusing and I loved the allusions to the “allusions,” although smarter critics suggest there are too many allusions to the “allusions.” Since critics’ opinions are better than mine, I “agree.” Also, given the Oscar buzz, like many white blue-precinct moviegoers who are so white we have a bluish tint — or at least our hair does — I’ll finally see a matinee of the real Best Picture, Moonlight.*

Certainly PricewaterhouseCoopers doesn’t need my help getting smacked around for failing such a simple, foolproof, checked and repeatedly counter-checked system to make sure the right piece of custom-engraved card stock gets into the right hands at the right time as the world’s 7.4 billion people, including all 17 members of the remote Sentinelese and Jawara tribes still waiting for the Kalinga War** to end, watch and tell their beloved to shut up already for chrissakes so they can listen intently to Viola Davis speechify and try not to tear up.

For its sin, PwC is already dealing with viral memes of Don Cheadle playing Basher Tarr in the Clooney Ocean’s 11 scolding his henchmen after they failed a heist, “You tossers! You had one job to do!” (This is true.)

(Also true: ABC rival CBS chief exec Leslie Moonves said, “The accountants have one job to do — that’s to give Warren Beatty the right envelope. That’s what these people are paid a lot of money to do. If they were my accountant, I would fire them.”)

While an accidental boon for ABC’s viewership, buzz and ad revenue, imagine life at PwC global HQ following the Oscar envelope mishap and mishigas. The scramble to lock down what happened. The F-bombs, sleepless nights, soul-searching and Dante-circle of conference calls. The personal and professional torture especially for the multimillionaire PwC managing partner who handed the wrong envelope to Faye Dunaway and the guy who looks like Dana Carvey imitating Shirley MacLaine’s brother having a citrus moment.

Not to mention the classic corporate crisis management that ensued from PwC’s #envelopegate and #Oscarfail. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, CNN, broadcast networks and other loser/fake news were hounding Academy officials every minute. While first, the real news — grocery checkout-line media (People, Us, We) and Trumpster alt-right, alt-fact truth- and soothsayers (Brietbart.com/whitelivesmatter/fox) — urgently needed care and feeding.

Bring in the $1,000/hour global PR consultants! PwC’s brand reputation for bulletproof diligence and reliability is at stake once again after rebuilding from the post-2008 financial meltdown and lawsuits alleging negligence for nodding at mortgage fraud. As the New York Times reported, a video introducing PwC execs Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz said, “The reason we were even first asked to take on this role was because of the reputation PwC has in the marketplace for being a firm of integrity, of accuracy and confidentiality.” The 83-year relationship counting the Oscar vote was “symbolic of how we’re thought of beyond this role and how our clients think of us.”

Here — seriously — is my point: As a strategic communications professional who’s worked through a few corporate crises (including an historic $6 billion accounting “scandal”), I respected PwC’s quick, abject, full throated apology for the Oscar mishap. But something was bugging me.

PwC stated, “We sincerely apologize 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.” The company also explained, “The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred.”

See anything wrong? No? Look again for the error our grade-school teachers rapped our knuckles for making (and every sniffing Conan the Grammarian loves to catch).

Yep: The passive voice.

The PwC statement is loaded with mea not-culpa. “The error that was made” … “had mistakenly been given” … “was immediately corrected” … “deeply regret that this occurred.”

For written communications, the passive voice is a faux pas worse than non-ironically using French clichés when an American English expression such as “f*ck up” suffices. In public communications, the passive voice is a red flag so obvious it seems intended to signal denial. Wikipedia summarizes why:

The New York Times has called the phrase a “classic Washington linguistic construct.” Political scientist William Schneider suggested that this usage be referred to as the “past exonerative” tense, and commentator William Safire has defined the phrase as “[a] passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.” A commentator at NPR declared this expression to be “the king of non-apologies.”

The Nixonian Watergate-esque “mistakes were made” stands out.

Imagine giving your spouse the passive-voice non-apology:

Spouse: You sold our three beautiful children into indentured servitude at a North Korean knockoff Nike basketball shoe factory, didn’t you, and with the proceeds bought that new 600 hp $250,000 Lamborghini Huracán that I see in the driveway and goes 0–60 in 2.5 seconds, when I specifically asked and you promised not to?

You: The error that mistakenly was made is deeply regretted, and your feelings of hurt and betrayal are understood and taken into account and under consideration. The issues raised, including but not limited to the children and the vehicle, remain under review and will be addressed going forward.

Spouse will get what you’re saying. Spouse may not be happy.

Yes, corporate apologies and personal apologies are different. Corporations don’t have as much freedom to come right out with the active voice and say — I’m sorry, honey, it’s my fault, I hear you, it’ll never happen again. Corporations have lawyers trying to manage liability and litigation. They need time to dig into the cause and find the cure. Apologies also speak not just for the company and C-suite, but often for thousands of shareholders and other stakeholders, including innocent employees.

(And remember: Shareholders, and companies devoted to them, are not faceless greedy fat cats — they’re you, me and anyone else with a savings or retirement account or union pension.)

But when companies mess up and need to ‘fess up, there’s a standard playbook. I laughed to find a website, PerfectApology.com, offering sackcloth and ashes for any occasion. For businesses, the site advises: Give a detailed account of the situation. Acknowledge the hurt or damage done. Take full responsibility. Recognize your role or the company’s in the situation. Include a statement of regret. Ask for forgiveness. Promise that it won’t happen again. Provide a form of restitution if possible.

This corporate apology playbook is not just good advice. It reflects what works best, allowing companies to deal with mistakes and crises and move on, versus what fails miserably, makes things worse, and even causes good companies to fail.

Too many companies I’ve seen, when they came under fire, hired former Washington political consultants whose instincts are to fight back or fall back to the defensive, passive voice rather than accept and own the situation, find a better way forward for the long term, and focus energies and assets on that.

But as a mentor taught me, political campaigns are different from corporate life. In politics, you fight and win or lose in a limited period: the election cycle. Corporate reputation takes longer to build and repair. So when stuff happens — as it does with every sound business, the purpose of which is to take and manage risk to advance their goals and perhaps even add to jobs and economy — you suck it up, own it, and pillory yourself more than anyone else might. You might even get sympathy and customer respect and loyalty.

My mentor also reinforced what his father, a leading Washington communications professional in his day, taught from his experience: “Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel.” Meaning, if your strategy is to fight with the media, then you’re running out of strategy. You’re like King Lear railing at the heavens. Stupid. The heavens always win.

On managing corporate crisis, Volkswagen, to me, did a good job with its apologies for the emissions cheating, and I say not just because as a car lover I thrill with their products, especially the incredible Golf GTI. As CEO Martin Winterkorn said,

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the irregularities with diesel engines from our corporation oppose everything that Volkswagen stands for. I also currently don’t have the answers to all the questions. But we are in the process to unsparingly reveal the background.

“For that purpose, we are currently putting everything on the table — as fast, thoroughly and transparent as possible. And we are continuing to closely cooperating with government and regulatory authorities. The speedy and comprehensive investigation has the highest priority. This is our obligation towards our customers, our employees and the public. And to say it bluntly this can never occur again.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, many millions of people around the world trust our brands, our cars and our technologies. I am endlessly sorry that we disappointed this trust.

“I apologize sincerely to our customers and the regulatory agencies and the public for the misbehavior. Please believe me that we will do everything to undo the damage that was done. And we will do everything to win back your trust step by step.

“In our corporation, more than 600,000 people work to build the best cars for our customers. And talking directly to our employees, I am saying, I know how much effort and great, true sincerity you do your jobs day in and day out. It is clear to me that now much will be questioned now. I understand that.

“But it would be false, if because of the terrible mistakes of a few, the hard and honest work of 600,000 people is put under a general mistrust. Our team does not deserve that. That’s why we ask — I ask — for your trust in our way forward. We will uncover this. We are working intensively in necessary technical solutions and we will do everything to undo damages done to our customers and employees.

“I give you my word.

“We will proceed with the highest possible openness and transparency.”

Notice the humility, the taking of responsibility, the pledge to find the cause and a cure and keep an open lederhosen, the ask for forgiveness and a chance to do better, and most of all, the active voice that says, “this is on me.”

The U.S. Supreme Court recently has decided, essentially, that since corporations are made up of people, they have similar rights as people. So if corporations have personal rights, then they also have personal responsibilities and need to apologize in a personal way when they wrong the public.

In that light, let me humbly offer to tweak PwC’s response to #envelopegate and #Oscarfail:

“For over 80 years, PwC has had the rare privilege of handling the Academy Awards envelopes. We are given this role because of our commitment to, and reputation for, extreme diligence and precision that has been a hallmark of PwC and our legacy companies since the mid-1800s.

“We are proud of our role with the Academy, we take it as a duty and responsibility, we are compensated well for it, we take it seriously, and we are responsible and accountable for doing it perfectly. We understand and appreciate that our privilege to serve the Academy reflects well on and benefits our company and reputation.

“In the 2017 Academy Awards, we had the relatively simple yet serious job — with the eyes of the world upon the event — to make sure the legendary artists, Academy members and presenters, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, had the proper card to deliver the important Best Picture award to the wonderful motion picture, Moonlight. In spite of our best efforts, we failed.

“From our hearts, we deeply apologize for putting the many talented event planners, staff, crew and presenters in a difficult position, and we thank Ms. Dunaway, Mr. Beatty, the people from Moonlight and La La Land, Mr. Jimmy Kimmel, and so many others for their grace in overcoming our error and bringing the event to a successful conclusion.

“We are committed to find and fix what went wrong. And we hope to regain and sustain the trust of the Academy and everyone who is counting on us.”

Whether corporations or people, it’s really not hard to apologize the right way when things go wrong, as they most definitely will. Confucius, Vince Lombardi and most life coaches are almost right — it’s not just whether, when knocked down, we get back up. It’s how we get back up.

The right apology after we screw up is meaningful — effective — when it doesn’t just put us back in the saddle. It resets our course.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington communications professional and writer.

*Confession: I thought Woody Allen was getting another award for Magic in the Moonlight.

**Look it up. I’m tired.