Crisis communications: Lessons to be learned from the Oxfam scandal

The Charity Commission’s recent review into how Oxfam GB handled its safeguarding scandal emphasised how charities are judged on their actions, not words – something all organisations would do well to heed.

The review was prompted by a national newspaper article last year that claimed some of Oxfam’s senior charity staff had been investigated over “safeguarding allegations, including sexual harassment and the covering up of exploitation”.

The article, published by The Times, said one of Britain’s biggest charities covered up the use of prostitutes by senior aid workers in earthquake-torn Haiti. Among the most serious allegations were that some of those ‘prostitutes’ were minors – a claim the Charity Commission could neither substantiate nor rule out.

According to reports, three men were allowed to resign and four were dismissed for gross misconduct.

Further reports later emerged featuring claims of sexual misconduct by Oxfam staff in the Philippines in 2013, as well as allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse or harassment at Oxfam’s UK high-street shops.

The commission was highly critical of the way Oxfam GB handled the situation. It concluded that the charity’s failure to be sufficiently “full and frank” about the affair was prompted by “a desire to protect Oxfam GB’s reputation”.

However, ironically, in its bid to protect its reputation, the charity has caused itself more damage by failing to communicate effectively and – more importantly – tackle the issues at the heart of the problem.

As these sagas prove time and time again, when a crisis hits a brand or organisation, the best way to respond is always with transparency, compassion and urgency.

At a time when public trust in institutions is at an all-time low, communicating effectively when allegations pose a serious reputational risk is not only morally the right thing to do but business-critical.

Putting aside the human impact of a crisis, fund-raising in the case of a charity or a company’s sales and share price in the private sector, can also be jeopardised. Reputation Risk in the Cyber Age, a 2018 report by Pentland Analytics and Aon, suggests that when a reputational crisis hits, it is management’s response to that crisis that determines how investors will respond. Companies can add 20 percent of value or lose up to 30 percent of value depending on how prepared they were for a crisis and how they handled it when it broke.

It’s impossible to predict and prevent every crisis, but there are certainly ways organisations can be better prepared and equipped to deal with them when they arise.

Start by analysing the risks to your brand or organisation. What are the potential problems and issues it could face? By being honest about this, brands can take pre-emptive action to stop any potential issue from escalating.

But putting in place an effective crisis communications strategy, which is transparent, limits reputational risk and equips the organisation to handle negative press coverage and social media comments, if – and when – crisis strikes, is also key.

In this digital era of 24/7 news and always-on social media, there is no hiding place during a crisis, and they can quickly escalate if brands mis-judge their communication. Who are your most senior spokespeople? Have they been trained to handle the most challenging of media interviews? If not, investing in that training now could be one of the smartest moves your business makes.

We should never lose sight of the fact that, often, the manner in which a crisis is handled is as important as the crisis itself. Brands are frequently judged not by the crisis but how they respond to it.

In the case of Oxfam, losing sight of its values has cost the charity and the communities it serves dearly. In the aftermath of last year’s scandal, Haiti banned Oxfam from operating in the country, the Department of International Development placed a temporary ban on funding, some celebrity ambassadors distanced themselves from the organisation and more than 7,000 people are said to have cancelled their donations, forcing Oxfam to consider £16 million of cuts to its aid projects.

How, or indeed if, Oxfam GB will fully recover from this scandal remains to be seen. As the Charity Commission investigates fresh claims that an organisation formerly led by Oxfam’s new CEO had allegedly covered up another sex scandal, it is clear that the third sector now has a huge task on its hands to rebuild public trust.

The Chair of the Charity Commission, Tina Stowell, gets to the heart of the issue and perhaps the last word should go to her. In the foreword to the Charity Commission’s report on Oxfam, she writes: “No charity is so large, nor is its mission so important that it can afford to put its own reputation ahead of the dignity and wellbeing of those it exists to protect.”

This article was written by our Group Managing Director, Angharad Neagle, and appeared in the Western Mail on 5 July 2019.