Publicly shaming the Oscar accountant was wrong

Story highlights

  • Kara Alaimo: Firm said it was taking full responsibility for wrong envelope at Oscars
  • She says decision to name responsible employee publicly was attempt to shift blame

Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of "Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication." She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)On Monday night, PricewaterhouseCoopers released a statement claiming to take "full responsibility" for Sunday evening's Oscar screw-up in which a staffer gave the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, who falsely announced that "La La Land" had won the Academy Award for best picture. But that isn't exactly what PricewaterhouseCoopers was doing.

Kara Alaimo
The firm also took the unusual step of naming the employee responsible for the fiasco: managing partner Brian Cullinan. It also emerged that Cullinan had tweeted a photo of the actress Emma Stone backstage just before the mix-up. The decision to name him publicly will be a disaster for both PricewaterhouseCoopers and Cullinan.
First, the move reflects terribly on PricewaterhouseCoopers. Publicly naming Cullinan looks like an attempt to deflect blame. Yes, Cullinan apparently made the mistake. But organizations are responsible for what their employees do. PricewaterhouseCoopers should have had error-proof processes in place to ensure that the (true) Academy Award winners were announced. Clearly, it didn't.
Lots of chief executives try to make excuses for crises by blaming their staffers. But it doesn't work. For example, after Wells Fargo owned up to 2 million accounts that weren't authorized by customers, the bank tried to blame staffers by firing 5,300 workers, many of them at low levels, and just one area president. But eventually, its chief executive had to take responsibility by stepping down.
That's because people believe companies are accountable for what their people do.
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While PricewaterhouseCoopers shouldn't have named Cullinan publicly, it should have immediately announced that the (unnamed) staffer(s) responsible for the error had been fired or reprimanded. It also should have begun to outline other measures it's implementing to fix its procedural problems. That would have demonstrated it was taking swift action to ensure that it never messes up like this again.
But by subtly trying to shift the blame instead of solving the problem, PricewaterhouseCoopers will only deepen the damage to its reputation.
It will also deeply wound Cullinan. People are already using the hashtag #YouHadOneJob to vilify him on Twitter. One man tweeted: "@BrianCullinan he had one job- but too busy taking pictures- typical dumb American." Another tweeter wrote: "I bet @BrianCullinan got paid big bucks for the ONE job he failed to do. America wants a refund."
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In his book "So You've Been Publicly Shamed," Jon Ronson explains what's next for people who have been publicly pilloried -- such as former IAC public relations representative Justine Sacco, who facetiously tweeted in 2013, "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" By the time she landed, she was being excoriated on Twitter and had lost her job. Sacco told Ronson she had "cried out my body weight in the first twenty-four hours. It was incredibly traumatic. You don't sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night forgetting where you are." And, she said, "It's not like I can get a date, because we Google everyone we might date."
This kind of punishment is out of proportion for the "crimes" committed by people such as Sacco and Cullinan.
In fact, the idea of public shaming -- such as exhibiting criminals in the town square -- was rejected by America's founders as too cruel. In 1787, Benjamin Rush, who signed the Declaration of Independence, wrote a paper arguing that "ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death." Within 50 years of its publication, public shaming was eliminated in every state except Delaware.
Cullinan should be fired for his error because it caused such a massive public embarrassment for a firm that relies on a reputation for accuracy and has put its future work with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in jeopardy. But he doesn't deserve to be meted out a punishment worse than death by a company ill-advisedly trying to shirk its own responsibility.