The Golden Globes Emily in Paris Scandal Is a Leadership Lesson You Can’t Afford to Ignore

Earlier this month, when Golden Globe nominations were announced, many were surprised to see the Netflix show “Emily in Paris” nominated as best comedy series. Then this week the LA Times published an investigation into the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which oversees the Golden Globes. It turns out some 30 HFPA members — more than a third of the 87-member organization — took a lavish trip to Paris to visit the set and were wined and dined “like kings and queens,” according to one participant. 

Both media and social media quickly connected the dots, concluding that the “Emily” nomination basically amounted to bribery. The truth is that isn’t really clear. But there’s a big lesson here for every leader, and everyone in a position of influence or power. Bad things can happen when you lack diversity. And in general, it’s best to avoid doing anything you wouldn’t want to read in the newspapers or on Twitter.

Whatever else you might say about the 87 members of HFPA, they’re some very lucky journalists. In a profession where it’s increasingly difficult to make a living, their organization is a money tree that keeps on producing. The aptly named Golden Globes brought in $27.4 million from NBC last fiscal year, and that payment has been going up annually, in large part because viewership for the awards is always strong. Many, but not all, of HFPA’s 87 members share in this wealth, getting paid impressive fees for things like writing articles for the website or serving on committees. Not only is this highly unusual — in most trade groups, members perform such tasks for no pay or nominal pay — tax experts interviewed by the LA Times say it may violate IRS guidelines. (HFPA also makes many charitable contributions.)

HFPA members’ good fortune doesn’t end with these cash payouts. The Golden Globes are often considered the Oscars-before-the-Oscars, and it’s easy to see why. Both awards shows feature a red carpet, a star-studded audience, celebrity hosts, and the suspense of waiting to hear which nominees, followed by heartfelt or jocular acceptance speeches. 

But in fact the two awards are very different. Oscar winners are selected by a vote of the 9,400-member Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, all of whom work in the industry as directors, actors, cinematographers, and so on. Golden Globe winners are determined by the 87 foreign journalists who make up HFPA. 

For many Hollywood executives and publicists, the fact that relatively few people decide the Golden Globes winners is an opportunity to try to influence those decisions. HFPA members are not allowed to receive valuable gifts — in 1999 many were forced to return $400 Coach watches USA Films had given them. And they (or their publications) pay their airfare when they travel. But once they arrive at a destination, they can be treated to $1,400 hotel rooms, lavish meals, and a visit to a private museum featuring antique amusement rides, all of which happened on the “Emily in Paris” trip. 

Then again, there’s nothing unusual about a studio inviting entertainment journalists to visit the set of an upcoming show and treating them to a good time while they’re there. And several observers, including the LA Times, have noted that “Emily in Paris” is just the sort of show these foreign journalists often nominate for Golden Globes: a lighthearted series set in Europe. Despite mediocre reviews, the series is quite popular with Netflix subscribers, which suggests there is something appealing about it.

Not one Black member.

Considering all this, it’s far from clear whether or not “Emily” won its nomination through undue influence. But take a step back and ask yourself why HFPA has such a fondness for shows about the privileged and beautiful in Europe and whether there’s a connection to the fact, also noted by the LA Times, that the group does not have a single Black member. Several movies and series featuring black actors and characters didn’t get Golden Globe nominations, despite being considered likely Oscar or Emmy contenders. Among them: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Da 5 Bloods,” and “I May Destroy You.” Their absence was so glaring that Deborah Copaken, a writer on “Emily” — whose life as an expat journalist is partly a model for Emily’s — wrote an op-ed for The Guardian saying that “I May Destroy You” should have gotten the nomination instead

An HFPA representative told the LA Times that the group does have members of color, if not Black ones. Further, it is “committed to addressing” its lack of Black members. But it’s been nine months since the George Floyd protests opened a new conversation about race in the United States. An organization that really was committed to addressing this issue had plenty of time to do so between then and now.

I’ve reached out to HFPA for comment and I’ll update this piece if I receive any. In the meantime, if you’re a leader, consider what you can learn from the group’s current problems. First, a lack of diversity in your organization or leadership can make you myopic in ways that can be costly. Next, it’s really, really easy to look dishonest, whether or not you actually are. And finally, as some anonymous members of HFPA told the LA Times, venerable organizations need to keep evolving if they want to survive. Doing things the way you’ve always done them may not be good enough in our changing world.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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