The biggest blunder in Oscar history and what we can learn from it

Last Sunday night we witnessed what has been the biggest blunder in Oscar history. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty wrongly announced La La Land as the winners of the best picture award. It was not until half way through the acceptance speeches that the mistake was then realised – the Oscar for best picture was supposed to be awarded to Moonlight.

How could a mistake of this scale have been allowed to happen

How could a mistake like this have been allowed to happen, people were asking each other the next day? It had not been exactly clear to begin with, the acceptance speeches rolled out as normal until producer Fred Berger summed up by saying “we lost by the way, this is not a joke”. An Oscar being awarded to the wrong film by accident was something nobody thought could happen. Everybody looked at each other, was he joking? Fellow producer Jordan Horowitz went on to say “there’s a mistake – Moonlight, you won best picture”.

Everyone took to social media to discuss. Initially fingers pointed at Dunaway and Beatty, they were visibly embarrassed as they returned to the stage to correct the mistake. Beatty explained he had read from a card that said Emma Stone – La La Land – best actress, an award that had been handed out already that night. Three hours later the full explanation came via twitter, this time from PwC the accounting firm that handles the results process –

“PwC takes full responsibility for the series of mistakes and breaches of established protocols during last night’s Oscars. PwC Partner Brian Cullinan mistakenly handed the back-up envelope for Actress in a Leading Role instead of the envelope for Best Picture to presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Once the error occurred, protocols for correcting it were not followed through quickly enough by Mr. Cullinan or his partner.


We are deeply sorry for the disappointment suffered by the cast and crew of “La La Land” and “Moonlight.” We sincerely apologise to Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Jimmy Kimmel, ABC, and the Academy, none of whom was at fault for last night’s errors. We wish to extend our deepest gratitude to each of them for the graciousness they displayed during such a difficult moment.


For the past 83 years, the Academy has entrusted PwC with the integrity of the awards process during the ceremony, and last night we failed the Academy.”

PwC’s reputation at risk of damage

Brian Cullinan chairman of the US board of PwC and his colleague Martha Ruiz are the only two people who know all 24 winners ahead of time, they look after the results right up until the moment they are presented. It seems PwC had initially resisted taking responsibility, as it could be argued Dunaway and Beatty should have noticed the mistake, but it now appears the overriding responsibility lay with PwC. It is their job to ensure the correct results are given to the presenters.

Since the awards PwC have been heavily criticised in the media for both the mistake and how they handled the events afterwards. There have also been detailed discussions about what the repercussions should be. Some papers have gone as far as to say PwC has breached a duty of care and there should be financial compensation. Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz have been fired from returning to the role again next year and it will be a miracle if PwC’s reputation has not been damaged.

This got me thinking about mistakes: Everyone makes them. Personally I think Brian Cullinan has been targeted quite harshly, and I was wondering is this because of the carelessness that caused it, the resulting embarrassment, or because he did not take responsibility sooner? Would owning up to the mistake immediately have been the key to retaining respect, and what would have happened if it had all been covered up completely?

Can organisations hire for integrity

Some people argue honesty is always the best policy, and that the truth always finds a way of coming out eventually. This may be especially true in corporate organisations, a culture of integrity is a good risk management tool and it also fosters trust from employees, clients and investors. In Bruce Weinstein’s book ‘The Good Ones’ he lists honesty, along with accountability and courage, as one of ten key qualities that make high character employees and successful organisations.

The problem is many organisations, PwC included, have honesty and integrity as a core value in theory, but it is lacking in realisation and meaning. Remember the Volkswagen emission scandal, News Corp’s phone hacking, and the Wells Fargo fake accounts? What I want to know is how can you really build a company culture of truly high character people, is integrity something that can be tested for during hiring?

Bruce Weinstein suggests asking candidates, “Tell me about a time you had to report an unpleasant truth?”, and “Have you ever cheated? What did you learn from it?”. The answer to these questions would surely be insightful, but will candidates really be willing to admit to something that might ultimately cost them the interview?

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