Oxfam scandal

Crisis communication has to be a core component of a decent PR strategy: private, public and charity sector alike.

We live in an era of insatiable reporting, with most of us self-acclaimed participants, as well as consumers. A double edged sword indeed.

This last week one of Britain’s biggest charities found itself firmly in the media spotlight following allegations about the conduct of senior aid workers in Haiti and Chad during relief efforts. Further allegations pointed to a cover-up within the organisation.

It was The Times that broke the story – and within hours it was global news. Key funders were pulling out, international celebrities were walking away, and former (disgraced) Secretaries of State were claiming it was only the tip of an iceberg. The charity was in crisis….

As a supporter of Oxfam I was horrified, angry and confused. As a PR practitioner I watched with interest as to how the communication team responded.

An initial statement was issued detailing the situation and facts relating to an investigation, dismissal and resignations at the time. Tick. It noted that a whistle blowing ‘hotline’ was established to help prevent no such issues happening again. Tick. The charity also stated that the relevant bodies including the Charity Commission were kept informed. Tick.

Open, clear, and transparent communication is crucial.

However, in my mind, the tone of the initial statement was factual, but lacked sufficient empathy or reassurance: two further key ingredients to any crisis communication. Given the nature of the content there was a stark lack of compassion or concern reflected in the media briefs.

I was further surprised that the statement was not attributed to anyone. Responsibility? During periods of crisis it’s needed more than ever. Senior leaders need to accept that, and step up to the media plate. As Hugh Grant muttered in that idiosyncratic film, Four Weddings and a Funeral, ‘if there’s music to be faced, I’ll face it’. Leadership and the personal touch are further prerequisites to well managed crisis communication. The Chief Executive of Oxfam did subsequently step up for interviews, as did the Chair of the Board of Trustees – but in terms of reputation management, possibly too late.

I think my final two points are training and preparation. There is no other way. Preparation, preparation, preparation.

MK has broad experience of crisis communication management. To understand more or speak to a Director please call: 0114 2756784 or email: help@mkpublicrelations.co.uk