What we can learn from “Envelopegate”

Many years ago, I ran a technical production company supplying lighting, staging, AV equipment and the people that went with them. We did our fair number of awards shows. Nothing on the scale of the Oscars, but I was there when people received awards that changed their lives and their company’s fortunes. I have also had the opportunity to work on live televised events. Nothing with the audience of the Oscars but with the majority of the same roles and processes in place. I have also been the “talent” on stage at events with live audiences often bigger than those in the Dolby Theater and have an understanding of what that entails.

If you have not experienced the backstage of a large event then picture a time when you felt most out of place, make it very dark, speed up time by about 50% and you are there. There is a new language to learn, strange customs, a complicated organizational hierarchy, invisible sight lines to stay behind and an understanding that no matter what “the show must go on”. It is not the natural environment of two no doubt highly accomplished partners from a very well respected accountancy and professional services firm.

Like most I was not overly surprised that the Academy elected to scape goat Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz of PwC and have them kicked off the account. A mistake was made and action was needed to quell the developing media hysteria. Some commentators have questioned why Martha was also sacked given that Brian handed Warren Beatty the wrong envelope. In an article from the BBC that I read before based on an interview with Martha revealed the process they go through to memorize the results so that the person stage left and right know what should be announced in each category. This made them both responsible for not identifying and resolving the issue faster.

Only a few people were backstage at the Dolby Theater on Sunday night and saw what actually happened in the seconds after Faye Dunaway said the words “La La Land”. An interview in The Wrap based on an interview with the lead stage manager Gary Natoli loads the blame on the PwC partners claiming “they froze”. To hammer home the point the article mentions that there was some discussion the prior day of the protocol should an event like this this happen. Natoli alleges that Martha was that Natoli was stood 5 feet away from her as this unraveled and she said nothing. He says he had to walk past her during this as he escorted the host Jimmy Kimmel into the audience where he could get into position to do a closing piece with Matt Damon. My read of this is that Martha was left alone at the side of the stage.

So why does this all interest me?

It is because I think it is a great and very public demonstration of how not to deal with an incident, or more precisely how not to prepare for one.

The reason that the stage has its own language, strange hierarchies, customs and working pace is that it is an environment where things are expected to go wrong and people have been drilled in how to deal with change. Any production requires planning and rehearsal which builds on years of practice. Everyone in the system learns their role and gets to test their capabilities and learn how they react. This is not the case for two partners from an an accountancy firm. Once a year they get to step outside of their world and go backstage. If there was a discussion about the potential of a mix up then they should have rehearsed what to do. Used that exercise to identify issues and worked to resolve them. Perhaps the stage management team would have chosen to allocate each accountant with an assistant stage manager to stick to them and act as a liaison. Proactively checking everything was OK at every step and the second it was not reporting it up their chain of command to the stage managers and show’s producers in the gallery.

Now imagine a similar event occurring Inside your organization, say a major data breach. Hopefully you have a plan. You will probably have done tabletop rehearsals with the core team. You will have identified internal stakeholders and key external resources. What thought have you put into how all the human interfaces will work, and have you tested them?

Or will you just keep your fingers crossed and hope for a repeat of last Sunday, where there just happened to be a professional well versed in spotting problems, reacting quickly to changes and taking charge on hand? Unfortunately, people who are able to do what Jason Horowitz did are rarer than you think. Also, having your customers clear up after your mistakes is not the way to go. Do what the Oscars team should have done. Recognized that they had people as part of their team who will not be as practiced or potentially skilled at reacting and so practiced and implemented compensating controls as needed.

Oh, and if I were PwC next year I would for the night hire two retired Secret Service Agents to work with your partners, memorize the results and be empowered to step out onto that stage.

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