On December 20, 2015, we watched in horror as Steve Harvey erroneously announced Miss Colombia as winner of the Miss Universe pageant. If you’re like me, you hadn’t watched the beauty contest in years but with the help of social media, were able to replay the mistake seen and heard around the world. You could sense the humiliation of Harvey as you witnessed Miss Colombia go from sheer elation to defeat in the blink of an eye. All of Facebook and Twitter were buzzing about Miss Universe. Every news outlet and media source spent days covering Harvey and the pageant. After considering the steady rating descent of beauty pageants in recent years I couldn’t help but wonder, was this an honest mistake or public relations genius at work?
In mid-2015, the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants were placed at the center of controversy after now former-owner Donald Trump made provocative statements regarding Latinos during the kick-off for his presidential campaign. As companies and sponsors dropped their support of the pageant, NBCUniversal, Univision, and pageant officials made swift moves to sever ties with Trump in an attempt to move back into the good graces of its millions of supporters.
According to Entertainment Weekly, the Miss Universe pageant had 6.2 million viewers and a 1.7 rating among adults 18–49, down 18 percent in viewership from the previous year. However, marketing and business consultant Matt Sweetwood conducted a survey, and of 1500 participants, 28 percent saw the blunder live while 45 percent were made aware of the pageant after they saw a video of the program. Twice as many people saw Miss Colombia and subsequently Miss Philippines crowned after the program. Translated into actual viewership, Steve Harvey’s “mistake” garnered about 12 million viewers.
As PR and marketing professionals, we understand the importance of formulating a message and crafting it to fit our audience. However, there are times when a simple mistake can be a stroke of PR genius. In this case, Steve Harvey reading an incorrect name revitalized and rejuvenated what many considered an antiquated program with minimal viewership. That simple mistake gained traction around the world and made the Miss Universe pageant a household name, if only for a fleeting moment. Through this one blunder we learned the science of PR is not really a science, but it’s about capitalizing on every moment to make it count.