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Four Crisis Communication Lessons From the Oscars Slap

There are things we expect at the Oscars: memorable speeches, dazzling celebrity appearances, and a celebration of the art of filmmaking. The 2022 ceremony, however, caught us all off guard with a moment that we will all remember—Will Smith’s slap.

When something of this caliber happens, PR professionals have to act fast. This is an opportunity for brands of all sizes to pay attention to the media frenzy and learn from what affected parties did or didn’t do to manage the crisis. Kayla Harbaugh, PR professional at Nuvolum, shares four lessons brands can learn about crisis communications by watching the aftermath of the 2022 Oscars unfold.

1. Remove the Person From the Incident

Will Smith walking on stage and slapping Chris Rock in the face after a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith immediately changed the tone for the remainder of the ceremony. It left everyone wondering what The Academy would do, if anything. Removing Smith from the event would have given them a chance to issue the first apology and show their swiftness when reacting to a tense situation. However, Smith was allowed to remain at the event and attend the afterparty.

By letting Will Smith remain in the audience, The Academy missed an opportunity to quickly and clearly demonstrate to viewers and attendees that they do not condone violence. Smith’s ban from The Academy came less than two weeks after the ceremony, but one of the clearest lessons we can learn from this situation is the importance of speed. “Finding out what happened, responding to it, and providing information,” Harbaugh says, “should be your team’s top priorities.”

2. Ownership and Honesty

Will Smith’s apology during his acceptance speech was a step in the right direction. By addressing the incident, he could express his feelings and move toward the path of healing and resolution. The Academy issued a statement Wednesday after the ceremony stating that Smith was asked to leave the show but refused. However, as the story continues to unfold, The Academy was allegedly dishonest in their initial written statement.

In the statement, The Academy claimed they asked Smith to leave, but he refused. In multiple publications, we learned that Smith’s team responded by saying that this was not true and was told he could remain at the ceremony. Oscars producer Will Packer said in an interview with Good Morning America that he did not want Smith removed to avoid making “a bad situation worse.” Forbes covered updates that Rock also allegedly did not want Smith to be removed. All we can really know is what we saw: Smith stayed, claimed his award, and The Academy permitted it.

Despite what was actually said to Smith and his team, Harbaugh has found that being honest and taking ownership is always the right decision. Not knowing what really happened creates a cloud of ambiguity, which causes the public to lose trust. In the world of PR and public image, Harbaugh claims, “Dishonesty, even in a single instance, tarnishes a reputation.”

3. Composure Is Key 

It’s easy to let feelings take over. We see many companies and individuals affected by an incident act hastily upon emotions. Despite feeling upset, angry, or outraged by a situation, it’s crucial to take a step back and gather the facts.

“If a client is presented with a crisis, we have to work together to stay calm in a stressful situation. Instead of acting too early or rolling with the first idea based on initial emotions, we brainstorm every possible angle of resolution. Composure and collaboration,” Harbaugh says, “is necessary to see everyone’s perspective and take the right action.”

Right after being slapped in front of 16.6 million viewers, Chris Rock demonstrated excellent self-control by keeping his composure and refraining from making a big public statement right away. His actions, or lack thereof, worked to his advantage and even boosted his reputation online. When faced with an “uh-oh” moment, the next actions of your team set the stage for what’s to come. Make sure you know all the facts and have communicated with each other. It’s always a better idea to approach tense situations with clarity instead of anger.

4. Apologize and Vow to Do Better

Smith took responsibility for his actions by issuing an apology. He addressed the situation and advocated for love and kindness, and in his post on Instagram following up his apology on stage, he admitted to reacting emotionally and that he was wrong. However, in his apology, he spoke only about himself and his feelings instead of asking for forgiveness. If he would have asked for forgiveness, it would have made the apology more about the feelings of others instead of just about himself.

Rock kept his composure as the incident developed, but his joke warrants an apology. Rock claims he was allegedly unaware that Jada had been suffering from alopecia, as reported by the LA Times. Whether he knew of her condition or not, his remark hurt Jada and the community of black women who suffer from this disease.

“Chris Rock needs to issue a public apology,” Harbaugh says. “Will Smith took responsibility for his actions and issued a public apology. The same should go for Chris.” Regardless of who you support in the incident, even if you can see both sides, both parties were wrong and should take responsibility for their actions. Taking responsibility starts with apologizing and then vowing to do better.

An apology shows the public that you take ownership, but accountability doesn’t end with an apology. When dealing with crisis incidents, Harbaugh suggests taking apologies further by proving you’ll do better, educating yourself, having tough conversations, and showing your efforts in an honest way. Although their reputations may have taken some damage, Rock and Smith can rebuild trust with the courage to apologize.

The Takeaway on PR and ‘The Slap’

As we move forward from this PR crisis that took us all by surprise, we can reflect on the 2022 Oscars as a teachable moment. Some view Will Smith’s actions as a reputable defense for his wife, while others see it as toxic masculinity and unnecessary violence. Regardless of your or your brand’s position on “the slap”, having the skills to handle a tense situation properly and quickly can position your brand on top.

Every crisis is an opportunity to improve an organization’s response system and avoid repeat offenses. As Harbaugh and her PR team closely monitored the news and social media to learn from the crisis response of other PR agencies, she can then modify her strategy to make it better.

Harbaugh’s advice to PR teams and crisis communication specialists everywhere is to “Take notes on how Smith, Rock, and their teams handled the situation. Use this knowledge to make the right choices so that your team can be as prepared as possible if—and when—a crisis occurs.”