It’s a PR crisis of Hollywood’s own making.
Celebrities, public figures and social media users have lashed out at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, owing to the complete absence of
black actors and filmmakers among this year’s nominees.
Soon after the nominees were announced, director Spike Lee, actress Jada Pinkett Smith and actor Will Smith said that they would skip the February event.
The Rev. Al Sharpton has urged others to boycott the red carpet gala. Still others—including Lupita Nyong'o, George Clooney and David Oyelowo—have pushed
back against the protest.
On Monday night, Cheryl Boone Issacs, president of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said she is “heartbroken and frustrated about the lack
of inclusion” among nominees and that it’s “time for big changes.”
The Academy tweeted the statement from Isaacs, which said, in part:
As many of you know, we have implemented changes to diversity our membership in the last four years. But the change is not coming as fast as we would like.
We need to do more, and better and more quickly.
As the crisis deepens, here are a few things PR pros can learn from it:
1. Tell your story and give your audience the facts.
Though many film stars and movie lovers have lashed out at the Academy with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite for the second consecutive year,
the problem extends beyond the organization.
Amy Howell, founder of Howell Marketing Strategies, says it’s important for PR pros to tell their
organizations’ side of the story—especially in cases when public opinion doesn’t align with the facts.
“If the inherent problem is not enough diversity in the nominations, there is a larger issue and the film community needs to look at the reason(s) behind
that issue,” Howell says. “Unfortunately in today’s culture, ‘perceptions are reality.’”
In short, PR professionals often are challenged with balancing facts against perceptions.
Not everyone thinks the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominees is the fault of Academy voters, which is another opportunity for the Academy’s PR
On Tuesday, Whoopi Goldberg disagreed with people’s decision to boycott the Oscars, saying the problem isn’t with the Academy but rather with the film
industry and societal perceptions. She said the following on “The View”:
It's not that the problem is that the people who are nominated are too white. They're not looking at a movie and saying, “Oh, that's very white. I'm not
going to nominate that black movie.” They're not sitting there like that. What the problem is, the people who can be helping to make movies that have
blacks and Latinos and women and all that—that movie doesn't come to you. Because the idea is that there's no place for black movies.
Jarvis Stewart, chairman of IR+Media, says the Academy can start by explaining the nomination process to those outside
To most Americans, the issue with the Academy is a lack of transparency. Unless you’re a celebrity or in the [film] industry, it appears to be a handful of
rich, powerful, mostly white men making decisions as to who are the best of the best on the sliver screen. If this not the case, the president should say
so and educate the public.
Howell agrees. “The facts will speak loud and are important when emotions are involved in the story—clearly the case here,” she says.
In crises, it’s important for brand managers to tell their side of the story. PR pros should balance sensitively relating the correct information with
messaging that shows appropriate concern and empathy.
RELATED: Keep your cool in a crisis with these 13 tips.
“Managing these issues will require careful maneuvering,” Stewart adds.
2. Work with ambassadors—and even critics.
This year, Chris Rock will host the award ceremony—a deliberate choice that Issacs made to increase diversity for the event. However, there’s more that the
Academy could do.
On Monday, Spike Lee posted his statement about the Academy Awards on his Instagram account:
#OscarsSoWhite... Again. I Would Like To Thank President Cheryl Boone Isaacs And The Board Of Governors Of The Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences For Awarding Me an Honorary Oscar This Past November. I Am Most Appreciative. However My Wife, Mrs. Tonya Lewis Lee And I Will Not Be Attending The Oscar Ceremony This Coming February. We Cannot Support It And Mean No Disrespect To My Friends, Host Chris Rock and Producer Reggie Hudlin, President Isaacs And The Academy. But, How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White? And Let's Not Even Get Into The Other Branches. 40 White Actors In 2 Years And No Flava At All. We Can't Act?! WTF!! It's No Coincidence I'm Writing This As We Celebrate The 30th Anniversary Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday. Dr. King Said "There Comes A Time When One Must Take A Position That Is Neither Safe, Nor Politic, Nor Popular But He Must Take It Because Conscience Tells Him It's Right". For Too Many Years When The Oscars Nominations Are Revealed, My Office Phone Rings Off The Hook With The Media Asking Me My Opinion About The Lack Of African-Americans And This Year Was No Different. For Once, (Maybe) I Would Like The Media To Ask All The White Nominees And Studio Heads How They Feel About Another All White Ballot. If Someone Has Addressed This And I Missed It Then I Stand Mistaken. As I See It, The Academy Awards Is Not Where The "Real" Battle Is. It's In The Executive Office Of The Hollywood Studios And TV And Cable Networks. This Is Where The Gate Keepers Decide What Gets Made And What Gets Jettisoned To "Turnaround" Or Scrap Heap. This Is What's Important. The Gate Keepers. Those With "The Green Light" Vote. As The Great Actor Leslie Odom Jr. Sings And Dances In The Game Changing Broadway Musical HAMILTON, "I WANNA BE IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS". People, The Truth Is We Ain't In Those Rooms And Until Minorities Are, The Oscar Nominees Will Remain Lilly White. (Cont'd)
Jada Pinkett Smith also posted a statement on social media. On Monday, she shared the following video on Facebook:
Though both celebrities will be absent during the ceremony, neither slammed the Academy in their responses. Lee—who later
told “Good Morning America” anchor George Stephanopoulos
that he never used the word “boycott”—noted in his Instagram post that “the Academy Awards is not where the ‘real’ battle is. It’s in the executive office
of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks.”
Daniel Cherrin, an attorney and PR pro specializing in public affairs and crisis management, said that “Hollywood should be way beyond” having a discussion about
diversity and inclusion.
Instead of simply acknowledging the problem with a statement and future remedies, its PR team should instead look to make partnerships with public figures
that can help change the current situation—including critics.
“The Academy’s response to their oversight and subsequent boycott is a textbook response,” Cherrin says. “They acknowledge the problem, show empathy and
state what they are doing to address the problem. However, in today’s world, we are no longer using textbooks.”
Cherrin says the Academy should embrace a de facto boycott of its event in order to stand with those actors and filmmakers who are making a statement,
while honoring diversity for those in attendance:
[The Academy’s PR team] also [must] find a way to include those attending the show to be a part of their effort, to show the country they are serious about
honoring and cherishing diversity. Find some way to leverage the audience in the theater in that effort and engage the audience watching at home on social
media, and incorporate that into the show.
Though giving critics a stage to air their complaints might be the last thing PR pros want to do in a crisis, showing your audience that you listen and
care can go a long way toward repairing your reputation.
PR pros can also partner with brand ambassadors and build relationships with the most vocal critics in order to create action plans. This shows people that
your organization is willing to fix the problem—even if it’s not directly your fault.
3. Don’t just speak; take action.
The New York Times
reported that as early as next week the Academy could announce measures aimed at adding diversity to the awards. These changes could include increasing the
number of films, actors and actresses that are nominated for the awards’ top categories.
Though quick changes like a bigger nominee pool doesn’t address the lack of opportunities for black actors and filmmakers in Hollywood, it does show that
the Academy is making an effort.
“I don't think the Oscars are beyond saving, but we're at a point where actions will speak much louder than words,” civil rights activist Shaun King wrote
in New York Daily News.
As more people speak out against the Academy—some have even called upon Chris Rock to abandon his hosting duties—it becomes crucial for the organization to
do more than make statements.
In similar situations, brand managers must work with organizational leaders and clients to establish action plans, then find ways to effectively (and
transparently) relate the plans and progress to audience members.
“Boycott threats allow brand managers to redefine who they are, redirect the conversation and reengage with audiences,” Stewart says.
“[The Academy’s] work is just beginning,” Cherrin says. “They need to find opportunities beyond the show in regaining our trust and finding ways to
rebuild, not just at the movie, but at the movie theaters in neighborhoods across this country.”
What other lessons would you take from this situation, PR Daily readers? How would you transform this sort of debacle into a Hollywood ending?
Update: On Friday afternoon, the Academy announced that it will aim to double its number of women and diverse members by 2020.
The Academy said in a statement that it will achieve this goal through new governance measures, three seats on its Board of Governors, additional positions on its executive and board committees and a global campaign to identify future voters:
Beginning later this year, each new member’s voting status will last 10 years, and will be renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade. In addition, members will receive lifetime voting rights after three ten-year terms; or if they have won or been nominated for an Academy Award. We will apply these same standards retroactively to current members. In other words, if a current member has not been active in the last 10 years they can still qualify by meeting the other criteria. Those who do not qualify for active status will be moved to emeritus status. Emeritus members do not pay dues but enjoy all the privileges of membership, except voting. This will not affect voting for this year’s Oscars.
The organization shared its statement on Twitter:
“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” Isaacs said. “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.”