Oxfam Gets Crisis 101 Lesson: Don’t Try to Cover Up a Scandal

Thom Weidlich 02.22.18


Oxfam, the U.K. anti-poverty charity, is learning the hard way one of the most basic lessons of crisis communications: When there’s wrongdoing in your organization, don’t try to hide it. Get the story out there at once. Purge. Oxfam didn’t do that and it is now haunted by its decision.

The story stretches back to 2011. That was when Oxfam learned its staff in Haiti engaged in sexual misconduct, including the hiring of prostitutes. It eventually pushed out seven employees. At the time, the organization released a brief statement about misconduct without going into detail. That statement didn’t get much coverage.

Fast forward to this month, when The Times of London ran an exposé. Oxfam was (and is) accused of covering up the scandal. In response to the Feb. 9 Times story, it issued a statement calling the staff’s behavior “totally unacceptable.”

The New York Times summarized the situation: “The revelations have led to investigations by the British government, a halt to government funding of the charity, talk of prosecution by Haitian authorities, the resignation of a top Oxfam executive, and disclosure of claims of sexual misconduct and exploitation by aid workers from multiple groups in many countries.”

In other words, a crisis.

On Monday, Feb. 19, after a week of issuing various press statements (including announcing a plan to end sexual abuse in the wake of the scandal), Oxfam released a redacted version of its 2011 report on its internal investigation into the misconduct.

That was good. But a little belated.

‘Fuel the Fire’

Mark Goldring, CEO of Oxfam in Britain, has apologized several times. In an interesting interview with The Guardian, Goldring (who joined the charity in 2013) decried Oxfam’s communications in response to the crisis — or at least their interpretation: “Anything we say is being manipulated: ‘Oxfam’s still making excuses, still trying to justify itself.’ I went on the Today programme on the first day and tried to explain and it totally failed. All it did was fuel the fire.”

Crisis communications isn’t easy.

Goldring admitted it was wrong for the group in 2011 not to explain to the public why the employees left.

On Monday, two senior members of Oxfam’s leadership met with Haiti’s minister of planning and external cooperation to present a formal apology. The next day, Goldring appeared before the International Development Committee in Parliament and apologized repeatedly to the MPs.

“They’ve completely changed their tone from a week before when they said, ‘We did nothing wrong,’” Times of London reporter Sean O’Neill said of Oxfam on U.S. radio program Democracy Now! yesterday.

In his testimony in Parliament, Goldring revealed that, since the Haiti news broke, his organization has lost about 7,000 regular donors and has had 26 reports of sexual misconduct, with 16 of them coming from its international programs.

It seems this is a crisis the CEO will have to confront for some time.

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