Accountants in the Oscars spotlight

Accountants don’t generally get to bask in the limelight and it is also rare for them to make headlines of any kind. You certainly wouldn’t accept an accountant to steal thunder at an event of the magnitude of the Oscars, but PwC partner Brian Cullinan’s monumental gaffe at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre on Sunday night did just that and thrust the venerable London-based accounting firm into public scrutiny.

Cullinan handed the wrong envelope for the Best Picture award to presenter Warren Beatty in what has been called the biggest error in the history of the awards. Beatty's co-presenter Faye Dunaway announced that La La Land had won, after which the delighted cast and crew of the hit musical crowded the stage for their acceptance speech, but the error was identified and the best picture prize was eventually awarded to Moonlight. The accountant had tweeted a picture from backstage a few minutes before his mistake caused chaos to ensue in front of the audience of Hollywood's brightest stars and the millions watching on television.

PwC issued an apology three hours later, blaming Cullinan for the error and for not reacting quickly enough to rectify it, but the hashtags #envelopegate and #Oscarfail were soon trending on Twitter and the firm was the target of unwanted consumer attention. The firm has tabulated the votes for the Academy Awards for 83 years and proudly touts its long association with the Oscars on its website. The Academy isn't PwC's biggest client by any stretch of the imagination, but as a business-to-business concern, its role in tallying the votes at the Oscars holds much appeal in terms of marketing and recruitment.

The establish protocol demanded that Cullinan and his PwC colleague Martha Ruiz each brought briefcases holding identical sets of envelopes for the winners of the 24 categories to the awards via the red carpet and that they arrived separately to mitigate the risk of traffic delays. The accountants were required to memorise the winners and once the show was underway, were stationed to the left and right of the stage in order to hand the envelopes to the category presenters.

It remains to be seen if the bizarre events of the weekend, which have been likened to Janet Jackson's infamous clothing malfunction at the Super Bowl in 2004, will have any impact on PwC's relationship with the Academy. As one of the Big Four accounting firms alongside KPMG, Deloitte, and Ernst and Young, PwC management will be hoping that the unfortunate episode will not garner the world's attention long enough to do any serious reputational damage.