A disaster. That is perhaps the one word we can use to sum up the Academy Awards this year, an event most notable for Will Smith attacking Chris Rock.
The Oscars were a disaster for Will Smith. At his time of great success, the moment when he should be celebrating and enjoying congratulations, he hits Chris Rock and completely transforms the night and the branding message. His violent outburst changes his brand, forever.
It was a disaster for Chris Rock. First, he gets brutally hit by Will Smith. Then people attack him for making an inappropriate joke about someone’s health condition.
It was a disaster for the Academy. The good news is that people are now talking about the Oscars, which is a refreshing change for the fading spectacle. It might result in stronger viewership in future years, reversing a stunning decline. The problem is that the story is about a violent interchange between two high profile actors.
It was a disaster for race relations. This was a conflict between two high-profile, well-established black actors. It occurred as violence is raging in cities across our country, especially black neighborhoods.
One branding lesson is pretty clear: when you are in the spotlight, be particularly careful with what you do. Think first, act later. Don’t push the envelope. You build a brand and damage a brand most when everyone is watching.
The dynamic holds in a business context. When your brand is getting attention, be cautious and careful. On an individual level, when you are doing a big presentation, get it right. Don’t make flip jokes. Have back-up copies of everything.
The more complex question now is this: what should Chris, Will and the Academy do to address the brand damage?
Chris Rock should take the high road. He already did an amazing thing when he continued the show after the assault. He didn’t hit back. He didn’t stumble. He was a master. Chris Rock should say “I understand these things happen. It was an intense time. Will Smith is an amazing performer. I apologize if my joke touched on a personal health issue, and I will try to avoid this in the future.”
Will Smith has a far more difficult task. He apologized in his acceptance speech, which was a start. But his comments didn’t work. Saying “Love will make you do crazy things…” suggests that sometimes violence is appropriate. This is the wrong message. Then he apparently celebrated later at Oscar parties.
Smith should apologize to the Academy and to Rock. He should say that he will be getting counseling to deal with his anger issues. He should step back for six months or a year. He should be an example of humility and leadership. Perhaps something like “As a country, we have to do a better job managing violence. We have to learn that attacking people is never the right answer.”
He could use this to have a bigger impact. He could visit schools and talk to young people. He could work with anti-violence organizations. Perhaps he could make this a positive moment for his brand and for the country.
The easy move for the Academy would be to just say that it rejects violence in any form and then move on. Taking away Smith’s award won’t address the issue. But perhaps the Academy could also use this as a platform, launching a new initiative to reduce violence in Hollywood. The reality is that performers are influencers and violence should never be seen as an appropriate response to a situation.
If the players move quickly, there might be a positive end to the story.