When the Miss Universe Canada pageant gave the crown to the wrong winner recently, apologies were profuse, human error was blamed and the right winner soon got her sash.
A third-party audit reportedly spotted a transcription error or "typo" at the root of the trouble.
But the series of events shone unintended attention on a part of the award ceremony process that generally churns along quite smoothly out of the spotlight — unless it's the Oscars, where much is made of the smiling accountants carrying the ballot results in briefcases down the red carpet.
John Simcoe, who leads accounting giant PwC Canada's practice for technology, information communications, entertainment and media audit and assurance, has never encountered anything to rival the Miss Universe Canada situation in his time working with Canadian awards ceremonies such as the Junos, Geminis and Genies.
Simcoe wasn't the auditor working with the pageant, and he said he couldn't comment specifically on the circumstances surrounding its prize troubles, but if an incorrect result gets announced, Simcoe says there's "obviously a breakdown in the process."
"That's exactly the kind of situation you want to avoid."
The Miss Universe Canada pageant is hardly alone in its result woes. In 2007, a new Miss California was crowned after a voting tabulation error. PwC in Hong Kong was appointed to look into what caused an online polling failure in the Miss Hong Kong pageant last year. And earlier this spring, The Voice, NBC's successful musical entry into the reality show world, tossed out votes cast online and by text because "inconsistencies" were observed.
PwC says it goes to considerable lengths to try to ensure no such difficulties crop up.
'Independent and objective'
"There's a number of different aspects that are really critical to it," says Simcoe.
Careful and intense planning with the organizations involved — combined with some secrecy and the ability to hold a poker face — have ensured PwC has been able to keep accurate results under wraps until they are announced — correctly — on stage.
"The foundation for all of the process would be involving someone who is independent and objective from the actual voting process and that’s really where we come in," Simcoe says.
He wasn't willing to give away too many secrets, and wanted to keep the discussion "somewhat general."
And he acknowledges people may wonder: how difficult can this actually be, considering it's just counting ballots.
But it's not that simple, he suggests.
"It's actually quite complex when you start to introduce a multiple level of rules."
Once PwC has established its independence and objectivity with whatever organization it's dealing with, and has a clear understanding of that group's voting rules, it works closely with it to design the voting process.
Testing, testing, testing
If it's an electronic process, PwC needs full access to the software or website in advance.
"Once it's fully designed and ready to be executed, we need access to it, but in advance of live voting. And the reason for that is we run test voting," says Simcoe.
"We run several procedures to ensure that it's going to result in the right outcome, so ensuring there's not a capacity for duplicate voting, ensuring that votes are only counted once, ensuring that the votes are counted accurately — someone can't vote for more than one party, for example."
PwC also tests access to the voting process.
That, Simcoe says, helps ensure "we can know that we're … the last ones who have touched it before it went live and that way no one else is able to actually go in there and change anything or revise anything."
When results are produced, the auditor can use the same electronic ballots, ensuring credibility.
After that, though, there's the matter of getting the results successfully on stage for the announcement without anyone else knowing the winning names. Are they put on paper? Who prints them? Are they sealed up in envelopes? Who looks after the envelopes? And so on.
"We need to maintain custody of the envelopes if that's how they’re being presented right up until the presentation," says Simcoe.
Briefcases on the red carpet
At the Oscars, much is made of the PwC accountants who carry in the briefcases bearing the sealed envelopes that eventually make their way on stage, to be opened by the likes of Meryl Streep or Jack Nicholson. One year, the accountants even had their own song-and-dance introduction.
"Overseeing the balloting process each year and maintaining PwC's tradition of ensuring accuracy and secrecy has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my career," Brad Oltmanns, a PwC partner and its Oscars balloting leader since 2004, said earlier this year in a news release.
"Our work with the Academy for nearly eight decades is a testimony to our trusted partnership, and a real honour for PwC."
The Oscars have also given Oltmanns and fellow Oscar balloting leader Rick Rosas a bit of limelight they might not otherwise encounter in their careers.
"We're accountants," Rosas says in a video posted on PwC's U.S. website. "For accountants to be on the red carpet is to me sort of the ultimate experience."
In Canada, Simcoe hasn't encountered quite so much glamour.
"We have appeared, not necessarily always on stage," he says. "Sometimes they catch us coming into the event."
But secrecy is paramount — although maybe not to the Oscar degree, where the two briefcases are taken to the Oscar theatre by separate vehicles following secret routes. Simcoe is also quick to add he doesn't have a platinum briefcase with handcuffs or anything.
PwC does have measures to keep the winners unknown until the appropriate moment. Results are locked down electronically and access is limited.
"In each case, there's two of us … that know all the results by memory and that really serves as backup to anything," says Simcoe.
"But we only have one copy [ever] of the actual results to ensure there's nothing possibly being mixed up or distributed somewhere else."
Simcoe says there's nothing tricky about memorizing those results.
"You're familiar with them right from the start and then you see them being narrowed down whether it's through a jury process or the final voting process or what have you."
Simcoe admits people do sidle up to him from time to time, wondering if he could give them any early hints about winners.
"You go to different events either leading up to [the awards ceremony] or in the week of, or on the weekend, and people make a point of saying, ‘Is there any chance you can tell me anything?’ but obviously you don't."
Simcoe does, however, don his "poker face."
'You can't say anything'
"I just usually say, 'Obviously I can’t say anything.' And sometimes I'm talking to someone who I know damn well won but it doesn't matter. You can't say anything."
His job isn’t done, though, until the last presentation is made at any ceremony.
"The final key, critical piece is ensuring that what is actually read aloud is actually what we printed as the right result on what was inside [the envelope]
. That seems like a really simple thing but you never know if someone's going to decide they don't like the winner that's written on paper and read something else."
Luckily, Simcoe says, that's never happened.
"But you need to think of these things and ensure the process is designed to address every eventuality."