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And the Oscar for best apology goes to . . . PriceWaterhouseCoopers

Perhaps you noticed that there was a screwup at the Oscars last night. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty announced that “La La Land” had won the Academy Award for Best Picture . . . and then had to backtrack, because there was a mistake. “Moonlight” was the actual winner.

After the mistake, many people behaved graciously. In what has to be the most heartbreaking moment of his career, “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz realized he didn’t receive his first Oscar, and then beckoned the producers of “Moonlight” to come on stage. Warren Beatty explained why he’d made the mistake — he’d gotten the wrong envelope.

But who was responsible for the screwup? It was PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that counts the votes and determines the winners.

PriceWaterhouseCooper’s statement is a model apology

Here’s PwC’s statement just after the event:

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 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.

We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, ABC, and Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.


If you make a mistake, learn from this:

  • It’s short: 76 words.
  • It acknowledges who was hurt: the winning movie, the movie that thought it won, the people on stage, and the public.
  • It explains what happened: they got the wrong envelope.
  • It explains what will happen next: they’ll figure out how to improve their process.

It does include passive voice (“had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope”) in a sentence that’s not grammatically correct. Clearly somebody was in a hurry. An active voice correction would be “Our representatives mistakenly gave the presenters the wrong category envelope; when we discovered the error, we immediately corrected it.” Perhaps somebody other than PwC is responsible; even so, they take responsibility.

Admittedly, this is the movies, not famine, disease, or corporate misconduct. But it was a very public mistake on one of the most popular broadcasts of the year. The lesson is the same, regardless of the visibility or significance of the error: take responsibility, apologize to the people you hurt, explain what happened, explain how you will fix it, and then get off the damn stage.

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  1. Well said, Josh. In the wake of Steve Harvey’s epic pageant error, viewers, including me, can be excused for thinking it might be a poor practical joke.

  2. This is an excellent analysis of what happened. You provided a teaching moment from it and one which I’m about to send to my offspring, a senior in high school and senior in college. I have to admit something, however. I love your blog; I follow you with fervor; this is the first time I’ve ever commented. But, Gawdamighty, even though I’m a writer, I’m a nervous freaking wreck that I’m using incorrect grammar. AICK!

  3. Good points. When you make a mistake, especially a doozie like this one, apologize immediately and sincerely.

    Still. It’s odd that the mistake was called the result of the presenters being given the “wrong category envelope.” It was the last award of the evening. Why were there any envelopes left? Was the wrong film given an award that was supposed to go to “La La Land?” Either PWC has some quality control issues, or the firm is taking the blame for presenters who should have worn their reading glasses.

    There’s a marketing opportunity here for Deloitte and Touche.

    1. There are two sets of envelopes, one no each side of the stage in the wings. The people on one side gave the envelope that said “Best Actress” to the person giving that award to Emma Stone. The people on the other side of the stage still had their Emma Stone envelope, and gave it to Warren Beatty when they should have given him the Best Picture envelope.

  4. Fine apology, except that P-W’s error was not corrected immediately. Now for all I know P-W acted immediately to tell someone presumably in charge of the mistake, but it took, if I believe what I heard on my L.A. NPR outlet which had an experienced reporter at the Oscars, two minutes for someone to come out and correct the mistake.

    If the P-W person with the correct envelope had just come out immediately and said “Oops, here’s the right envelope,” P-W could rightly claim credit for “immediately” correcting the error. That wasn’t what happened.

  5. Nice analysis and coverage on this Josh. But there is one person who is responsible for the error: The stage manager.

    The stage manager owns the show as soon as the curtain goes up. The stage manager is responsible to ensure there are no errors, including that two sets of envelopes entered the production area, which should never have happened. The stage manager was responsible for making sure this did not happen by stopping the practice at dress rehearsal and insisting on a different process. The stage manager is the person who simplifies all actions so there are no mistakes.

    My guess is the stage manager probably doesn’t have as much control on this event, but you can be sure the stage manager is feeling pretty whipped today.

  6. Josh – Do you think PWC used the passive in their apology because at the time of writing they didn’t know exactly what had happened?

    The trade would be the use of passive voice vs. delaying their apology.

    Maybe this is one of the times where passive is the best option?

    Respect to PWC for taking this straight on the chin.