Crisis Communications in a time of social media

Upon watching Netflix’s most expensive original series to date, The Crown, I was struck by how Winston Churchill handled an urgent public safety conundrum. He received new information around lunchtime, and rushed to get the situation handled by the “next morning papers.” In Churchill’s day, having several hours to get in front of a story qualified as reacting quickly. Today, seconds make the difference.

As even the most disinterested know, last night, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway took the stage to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their hit Bonnie & Clyde by announcing the Best Picture winner. Warren stumbled and stuttered through the announcement, and in a classic actor “what’s my line?” move, looked to his female partner. She instantly exclaimed “La La Land” and several of the movie’s producers had spoken on stage before it was clear that Dunaway had read a copy of the Best Actress envelope instead.

The announcement came just after midnight, and by 12:18am, PwC tweeted an apology claiming responsibility to the tune of 3, 550 retweets and 4, 069 likes (by Monday afternoon.) At 5AM, PwC was back to business and has posted six, likely pre-scheduled posts about business services in the time since.

As a matter of full disclosure, my husband is a CPA who has been working at PwC since 2010. PwC is a global professional services firm that specializes in audit and assurance, tax and consulting that cover such areas as cybersecurity and privacy, human resources, deals and forensics. They employ roughly 223,000 people in 157 countries and are hired and trusted by major corporations all over the world for a very specific reason – their precision. NBC News highlights all the precautions that are taken to eliminate risk and for 83 years, PwC has overseen voter tallying with little fanfare. But there is no precaution for the human error that we are all accustomed to seeing. It seems it was a case of handing over the wrong envelope (The New York  Times speculates it could be the result of a new design to the cards this year that made their labels more challenging to read.)

The LA Times sought the opinion of many crisis management  experts and as Bernhard Schroeder, a marketing expert who heads the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center Programs at San Diego State’s business school, cited that the mistake “is embarrassing, to be sure, in the short term, the long-term damage to PwC will be fairly non-existent to their bottom line…Large corporate companies that use PwC use them to provide solid audit and accounting services, not to organize envelopes for the Oscars.”

It’s a challenging time for the event to happen, as many public companies rush to file their fiscal year paperwork with the SEC with support from PwC, and of course, heading into tax season. And certainly PwC clients are checking their work quality a bit more than usual today.

Time will tell but as we have seen time and time again with company failures, there is nothing more important than getting out in front of a story, being fast, frank, apologetic, and sensitive. And then to move on. But in the interim, they are going to have to tolerate a LOT of “you had one job!” memes and tweets to come!

Lastly, oddly enough enough, one of the two leading faces of PwC, tax executive Martha Ruiz tweeted a red carpet selfie at 1:38pm today. It may be a sign that they are moving on, but may be more than just a bit too soon….

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One Response to Crisis Communications in a time of social media

  1. sydhavely says:

    Interesting and great post. Would love to hear more about PwC’s take on this.

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