Building From the Blacklash: How Sound Public Relations Strategies can Help the Oscars Rebuild Trust

By: Correy Hudson

Academy Award Trophy "Oscar"#Oscarssowhite. The hashtag heard (well, read) around the world following the announcement of the 2015 Academy Award nominations. Social media’s most trending topic last January was in response to the annual award show’s failure to nominate anyone of color in the major acting categories. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the governing body responsible for the nominations, was facing one of its biggest public relations tests in the age of hashtags, retweets, and likes.

In the minds of actors and movie lovers, there was no way the academy could ignore the bad press and calls for an improved effort to diversify its membership and nominees. Surely, 2016 would be different.

Or so we thought.

As Hollywood prepares for its annual celebration of excellence in film, #Oscarssowhite has dominated the headlines for a second year, bringing along with it a host of high profile boycotts and condemnation. The academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, has promised more aggressive efforts to address the organization’s diversity problem.

In the world of public relations, we know that acknowledging the problem publicly is a great first step. However, regaining the public’s trust is difficult without taking strategic and authentic steps that show we’re doing more than reciting talking points.

Here are a few strategies that the academy should consider when planning its next steps.

Engage your audience

Although voting on the nominations is limited to academy members, #Oscarssowhite has served as a public rallying cry. With that in mind, the hashtag provides the organization a great opportunity to have a public dialogue with movie lovers about how they plan to address the diversity problem. Considering that the conversation began on social media, why not create a new hashtag that gives the public an opportunity to weigh in on what diversity in film means to them? The discussion might uncover some issues and solutions that have not yet risen to the surface.

Leverage your star power

Jada Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee are two of the academy’s most high profile members that have spoken out about the diversity controversy. It is critical that the organization include those who feel affected in the discussion on ways to improve. This engagement may also provide well-known and trusted ambassadors who can advance your messaging on improvements in the public dialogue.

Go public

Sharing your improvement plan and providing constant updates will be key to winning back the public trust. Don’t just tell us you’re improving your recruitment efforts. Share the stories of new members, and the steps that you’re taking to ensure that all voices are represented in the voting process.


Strategic partnerships and Community relations

When I was a student at Hampton University, the Scripps Howard Foundation partnered with the university to create what would eventually become the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications. One of the goals of the school is to increase diversity in newsrooms across the nation by training future journalists and communications professionals of color at the historically black university.

The diversity controversy surrounding this year’s Oscar nominations presents a very similar opportunity for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The organization should consider drafting, and implementing, a strategic community relations plan that shows that they are committed to partnering with organizations that are training aspiring film leaders of color. What better way to increase recruitment than by reaching potential new members before they get to Hollywood? Who can better speak on your work to diversify than those who have benefited from your investment in their future?

The academy’s diversity controversy should serve as a reminder that, as public relations professionals, we must be at the forefront of ensuring that our organization’s leadership is attuned to the current public discourse (whether directly related to the organization or not). Additionally, we must help them to be proactive by shaping content that shows what you’re already doing well, and how you plan to continue.

Remember, the next negative hashtag is only one bad decision away.

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