The Oscar nominations were announced a few weeks ago and as was the case last year, it came with some controversy, as once again all the nominees in the acting categories were white. However, unlike last year, the backlash has been loud enough and significant enough to create widespread media attention and a very vocal reaction from the entertainment industry, including many high profile actors.
I am not going to say what my personal opinions are about the issue (and trust me, I have a few) but rather would like to focus on the response by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the body that governs and votes for The Academy Awards, to the controversy. After all, this is a public relations blog and this is without question a P.R. crisis for The Academy.
If I were to award a grade in terms of how well I think the organization has handled and responded to the controversy and the issue in general, I’d say they are at a solid B. There are many things that they have done right when it comes to the rules of successfully weathering an organizational crisis.
- Respond in a Timely Manner – One of the first rules of good crisis communication is to never hide and simply hope that the crisis goes away on its own. While it is important to take some time to construct an intelligent, well thought out and relevant response, because you certainly don’t want to make a situation worse by rushing and saying the wrong thing, it is important that the organization delivers some kind of response as quickly as possible. It helps the public know where the organization stands on the issue and helps in trying to gain control of the story, as well as the narrative. The Academy did this, with President Cheryl Boone Isaacs releasing an official statement about the controversy four days after the nominations were announced.
- Avoid Being Defensive – It is never a good idea for an organization to respond to a crisis by being angry, defensive or belligerent towards the media and the public. The best approach is to simply acknowledge the issue, accept and acknowledge the organization’s failure and/or culpability, whatever that may be, and be sympathetic and understanding to the public. And The Academy did that, with President Isaacs expressing sadness and disappointment at the lack of diversity among the year’s nominees and admitting that things do need to change.
- Be Clear and Concise – While it is good to acknowledge an organization’s mistake or mistakes and to make promises to do better, providing a clear and concise statement on how the organization plans to make these changes and fix things is also very essential. Doing so adds credibility to the organization’s response and makes the public less skeptical, as it shows that the former has given real thought to the issue and to creating real and tangible solutions. The Academy did exactly this, when on the heels of President Isaacs’ official statement, the Board of Governors took a vote a few days later that resulted in a number of specific and detailed changes to The Academy’s membership and voting polices. The six specific changes were made public in a statement.
As positively as The Academy has handled the current controversy, the reason I gave them a B grade is because of the fact that this even happened at all. As noted above, it was just one year ago that the organization faced heavy backlash on social media when all the acting nominees and majority of nominees were white. Many were particularly upset about actor David Oyelowo not receiving a Best Actor nomination for the film Selma, as well as its director Ava DuVernay not receiving a Best Director nomination, although the film did receive a Best Picture nomination.
At the time, Academy President Isaacs made a statement insisting that the Academy was “committed to seeking out diversity of voice and opinion”. And yet, a year later, virtually nothing had changed within the organization and its voting body. Therefore, I consider it a public relations failure on The Academy’s part that despite being aware of the public’s response, reaction and discontent, they chose to simply ride out the controversy and continue with business as usual, only to have this become an issue again. It is hardly surprising that this time the backlash and outcry was a lot worse.
The key lesson here is that as an organization, you must listen to your public and take the necessary steps to minimize a crisis as much as possible. Trying to ignore it and hope it just goes away is never the answer, as it is likely to only grow into something bigger and much more complicated.