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Oscar Stumbles at Crisis Comms

Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, but it’s the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences whose reputation is now getting hit. And as is too often the case in a reputational crisis, the damage is self-inflicted.

When an incident sparks a reputational crisis like the slap seen around the world, one cannot control what just happened – it’s done. However, in the immediate aftermath, how an organization reacts – or fails to react – will either begin the reputational recovery process or will further damage its reputation.

Here’s how the Oscars failed at damage control, and what your organization can learn from it.

1. Create an operational plan – and test it.

The Academy did not appear to have any safeguards in place to prevent someone from rushing the stage – or those protocols failed. And yes, this was easy to predict (Exhibit A: Kayne West disrupting Taylor Swift’s 2009 VMA acceptance speech).

2. Tell the truth.

The Academy initially said they asked Smith to leave, and he refused. Later they “clarified” their statement to suggest the Academy did not actually speak directly with him, but instead spoke with his people off-camera. Now, TMZ and Variety both report the Academy never directly or indirectly asked Smith to leave, and The Huffington Post, as but one example, trumpeted the headline, “Academy Accused of Lying…”

3. Create internal and external communications plans – and test them.

CNN reported, “There were immediate discussions {about ejecting Smith}, but the Academy decision makers were seated in various spots in the Dolby Theater and couldn’t mobilize to make a decision before he won best actor.” In other words, they could not communicate with each other when quick decisions were required, and their structure suggested the need for committee approval vs. empowering individuals to act swiftly as needed.

4. Be transparent.

RadarOnline reports, “Pressure mounts on Academy to release secret three-second video” of what Jada Pinkett Smith supposedly said to her husband after he initially laughed at the joke, just before he rushed the stage. If such a clip exists, the Academy should release it to affirm its commitment to transparency and shut down ongoing speculation. If such a clip does not exist, they should say so for the same reasons (but now they might not be believed; see #2 above).

This should have been a two-day news cycle that focused on the reckless actions of an otherwise respected A-list actor. Instead, the evolving story continues to dominate social and trade media and the event organizers re-directed the stage lights to their own credibility. Along the way, the Academy tarnished both its reputation and the iconic gold statue associated with it.

John F. Fitzpatrick is a managing partner at Stratacomm, an integrated communications agency serving corporate clients, trade associations, federal agencies and non-profits. Among other roles, he counsels clients on risk assessment and crisis communications – and the agency is adept at 24/7 crisis response across all communications channels.