7 Steps to a (Nearly) Foolproof Awards Envelope System

Envelope Oscars Warren Beatty La La Land Moonlight

Last night’s Oscars was a planner’s worst nightmare. No, we’re not talking about the too-frequent political jabs made throughout the awards show (maybe I’m alone on this, but I like to take a break from politics when I watch broadcasts like the Oscars). The nightmare occurred at the end of the Academy Awards when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway unknowingly announced the wrong winner for Best Picture, reading “La La Land” as the recipient instead of the true winner, “Moonlight.” Unlike the Steve Harvey/Miss Universe debacle in 2015 when Harvey read the wrong name printed correctly on the envelope, Beatty and Dunaway were handed the wrong card. PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm responsible for counting Oscars ballots, handed Beatty a duplicate copy of the already announced Best Actress award envelope honoring Emma Stone for her role in “La La Land.” The mishap caused a lot of confusion as the entire “La La Land” cast stepped onstage, began their thank-you speeches and were quickly told they didn’t win, prompting the “Moonlight” cast to take their place in the spotlight. Avoid a fiasco like this one by implementing these seven steps to a foolproof envelope system.

1. Clearly label each envelope.

This should be a no-brainer, but it’s a must with awards ceremonies. Make sure each envelope is correctly labeled and stored in an organized way. Also check and recheck the envelopes to ensure announcement cards were placed correctly. Have more than one person check the envelopes to confirm everything is in order.

2. Limit envelope duty to one person.

While on-site, give one person the responsibility of handing out the envelopes. This is the best way to avoid confusion because they’ll be able to keep track of what’s been given out already and what’s left. Also, from a crisis management perspective, having one point of contact is the quickest way to find out what went wrong.

3. Color code envelopes.

Careful planning means you have a backup for everything. In this case, a duplicate copy of the Best Actress award envelope was the cause of the fiasco. It’s OK to have duplicate envelopes on-site in case one goes missing, but make the secondary envelopes and announcement cards a different color from the originals. The person who handed the envelope to Beatty may have prevented the mistake if they saw the envelope was black instead of bright red like the originals.

4. Have a designated place where used or read envelopes go.

Presenters should not give envelopes back to the person who handed it to them—it’s asking for disaster. Whether used envelopes go in the trashcan or are held on to for later, make it clear to presenters where they’re supposed to discard them. The best scenario is to have another staff member responsible for taking up cards as presenters go offstage.

5. Brief your presenters.

The confused response Beatty had when he pulled the card from the envelope should have been a sign that something was wrong. A card reading “Emma Stone” instead of a movie title for Best Picture should have been a red flag that the incorrect envelope was given. Talk to your presenters ahead of time and tell them not to be afraid to reach out to the production team, even onstage. Since the Oscars were broadcasted live, the scenario would have been awkward no matter what, but it would have taken only a moment for Beatty to consult the production team onstage before the winners made their way up for speeches.

6. Know mistakes happen.

If our bae and “La La Land” star Ryan Gosling can teach us anything, it’s to not take mistakes too seriously. Like in the case of Steve Harvey, human error can’t be planned for. There’s nothing a planner can do if their announcer makes an honest-to-goodness mistake. In the case of the Oscars fiasco, however, the mistake could have been avoided. But what can you do? A mistake was made, and now it’s time to create an action plan to fix the problem and think of ways to make it right to those affected. 

7. If a mistake is made, act fast.

While it’s not ideal that the “La La Land” cast made it onstage before the mistake could be rectified, the Oscars team did work fast given the situation. If (and when) a mistake happens, work quickly to fix the problem. Communication is key, so if you know what caused the problem, tell the audience what happened immediately; they’ll likely be more understanding if they know the truth. Kudos to PricewaterhouseCoopers for owning its mistake. Photo credit: Aaron Poole/A.M.P.A.S.