Did the Oscars Deliver a Proper PR Response to Its Diversity Crisis?


Leading into this year’s Oscars, the media and many entertainment personalities noted the absence of minorities in the Academy Award nominations. Zero women were included in the Best Director category in a year when many contributed to meaningful films. And the Academy nominated just one person of color, Cynthia Erivo, for "Harriet," in the acting categories. 

You may remember the backlash of #OscarsSoWhite after the 2015 nomination announcements. Many outraged directors, producers and actors, including Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, boycotted the Oscars in 2016. History seemed to repeat itself in 2020, and many watched to see if the Academy would respond to its mistakes. It did, but on a seemingly cloyingly production level. 

“[A]s you watched this year's ceremony, there was an ever-so-slightly awkward feeling that the Academy was trying to make up for that pre-event controversy,” wrote Ben Sutherland for BBC News.

In addition to Janelle Monae’s opening, which highlighted the diverse roles and pictures left out of the nominations, comedians Steve Martin and Chris Rock delivered their pointed remarks, actor Utkarsh Ambudkar offered a bizarrely-timed wrap to “a bunch of nominees that don’t look like me,” and "Parasite" won Best Picture, the first foreign-language film to win in Oscar history. 

We took a look at the steps the Academy seemed to take to counter the negative press regarding its awards process. Did it do enough? Was it genuine? We graded the Oscars using a crisis PR perspective.  

Admit There's a Problem (Grade: C-)

One of the basic tenets of PR crisis response is owning your shortcomings. To its credit, the Oscars acknowledged the diversity issue several years ago in response to the 2016 backlash. 2017 included multiple nominations and wins for women and people of color. 2018 finally included a nod to female directors, with the nomination of Greta Gerwig for "Lady Bird." Good.

But 2020 seemed to go back to the same ol’, same ol.’ This was confusing in a year where many films' talented leaders were women.  

The Oscars show acknowledged its mistakes live, on stage, but without an official statement, explanation or apology. PR doctrine is that part of owning your mistakes is issuing a statement. Songs and skits skirting the issue are a contribution, but fall flat with the real issue. 

The Academy needs to be upfront with the public regarding its nomination process, and ask itself why this process fails to include a more diverse nominee pool. Launch an investigation. Releasing a statement, any statement, regarding this issue would bring viewers and entertainers to a greater understanding.

Be as Clear and Transparent as Possible (Grade: D)

As noted above, the Academy was silent regarding process or acknowledgement of its diversity issue. Attempts during the show to display “diversity” seemed forced or foggy at best. 

Performers and presenters almost seemed to go rogue at times, leaving fans wondering if comments were scripted and part of the Academy’s strategy. Why did Eminem show up out of nowhere? Was Chris Rock and Steve Martin’s bit an attempt to have celebrity mouthpieces point out, but ease over, the issue with laughter? Viewers were left with more questions than answers. 

Strike the Right Tone with Your Communications (Grade: C)

When trying to right an organization’s wrongs the most important part of messaging lies in authentic delivery. Does the statement or action seem to come from a genuine place? 

Viewers, attendees and possibly some of the presenters and performers seemed confused and almost suspect by some of the messages the Academy delivered Sunday night. It’s easy to say one thing and do another.

Pointing out the Oscars’ first female conductor, Eimear Noone—but only allowing her to conduct one portion of the program during the Best Original Score nominees—which a woman won, was a nice touch.  Yet it seemed forced, as if the Academy was saying—'Hey, see, we honor women too!'

As noted earlier, after making mistakes, it's best to own them, instead of glossing over them. Thankfully, spirited performers like Monae, Martin and Rock had the guts to call out #OscarsSoWhite and the lack of diverse nominees. The Oscars had to take it on the chin. 

Will the Oscars move forward? Has the Academy learned from its mistakes, or will we see a repeat performance of nominations in 2021? The next steps are actually to do more about the diversity issue. Look at the process and the nominating committees. Make necessary changes to reflect the industry's modern look.  Do this and we just might be able to have an Oscars without controversy.

Note: For more about crisis, attend PRNEWS' Crisis and Measurement Summit, Feb. 25-26, in Miami.