Sometime during the 1990s, when my main activity was to be senior partner of a firm of chartered accountants, I realised that what my firm sold to clients was not technical expertise or the administrative ability to complete accounts and tax returns on their behalf. What we actually sold was stress reduction.
Clients assumed we could do the technical stuff and had little way of knowing whether we got it right or wrong unless we really messed up ( we never did). In that case I realised that to believe that our competence differentiated us was wrong. Competence mattered to us, and we worked hard on it, but what was really important to clients was the fact that they could trust us to get things right and that would deal with al the nasty brown envelopes that came in the post.
Why mention this? Because, of course, it was dealing with something as simple as the envelopes that PWC got wrong at the Oscars. It was, almost certainly, straightforward human error. But for the client it really mattered. And if you can't get the small things right the obvious thing to do is to question what else you got wrong. For PWC someone's simple mistake is going to be costly as a result.
But broader lessons need to be learned. PWC and the Oscars will get over this. But the fact is that firms like PWC do make other very straightforward and much more significant simple mistakes. For example, they oppose country-by-country reporting which is undoubtedly in the interests of society at large because they think it is not in their clients' best interests. And they operate in tax havens from which networks of tax abuse operate. These are glaringly obvious mistakes if PWC and firms like it want to be seen to operate in the public interest and they are much more important than getting an Oscar envelope wrong. The cost to us all of the resulting abuse undermines our economy and the democratic structure of society.The Oscar error gave rise to two minutes of confusion and some adverse headlines. But at least it could be put right. The travesty of justice created by the Big Four accountants acting as the underpinning for the whole tax haven world cannot be so easily corrected and the cost has been enormous.
PWC has some apologising to do but not just for the Oscars. When it comes to its truth and reconciliation confessions there's a great deal more that should be on the list to consider. But I strongly suspect those other, more important, issues will be swept under the red carpet, at cost to us all.