Save the Children Scandal Raises Issues for Sex-Harassment Crises

Thom Weidlich 07.19.18


The lead story in this past Sunday’s New York Times business section covered Sir Alan Parker’s travails stemming from his leadership of Save the Children U.K. The charity was hit with a sexual-harassment crisis, and the piece’s theme is the irony of a crisis-firm head — Parker founded Brunswick Group — not handling such a situation well. It’s an instructive (negative) example of crisis response.

We’ve written much about sex-harassment crises, especially due to the high-profile Harvey Weinstein and Uber scandals and the #MeToo movement. We are encouraged that companies do seem to be taking accusations of improprieties more seriously.

As for Save the Children, Times journalist David Segal writes that the BBC reported in March that Parker and the organization “had bungled sexual harassment and bullying complaints leveled a few years ago by three female employees against two of the charity’s top managers.”

The mistakes made are common to situations like this, and are indeed the things to look out for when confronted with such a crisis. (Much of this information comes from a 2015 internal report that the Times quotes.)

  • For one thing, Parker (pictured) was accused of creating a hard-charging, businesslike culture at Save the Children that put more concern on raising donations (which had been flagging) than on employees’ well being.
  • Employees said Parker was more concerned with the reputations of the accused men than with the women who lodged complaints in 2012 and 2015. This is an all-to-familiar reaction. But that is beginning to change with the #MeToo movement. We hope.
  • Parker was close to one of the accused men — too close to be objective, some said. This too is an ongoing problem, and organizations should have procedures in place to deal with it.
  • Parker seems to have made excuses, such as that perhaps the bad behavior stemmed from travel fatigue. Clearly, rationalizations like this should not be condoned.

Although the alleged incidents happened years ago, the details didn’t become public until February of this year. The first thing people wanted to know was how Save the Children dealt with the situation. The lesson is clear: People want to know that companies and organizations take these allegations seriously. Too often, they don’t.

‘Seriously Defamatory’

Once the allegations became public, the charity, in an approach partly engineered by Parker, sent “sternly worded letters” with phrases like “seriously defamatory” to media outlets covering the scandal. Legal fees for the letters ran to $150,000. The strategy backfired as it was seen as too aggressive and the public didn’t think a charity should spend its donations that way. (Parker defended the letters as needed to ensure stories were accurate.)

Parker also defended Save the Children’s approach to the crisis, and we recognize the actions he mentions as a standard crisis checklist. Parker hired outside experts, oversaw an investigation, and expressed empathy for the women. But clearly this was not enough, and the crisis has taken its toll. “Save the Children U.K. has taken a hit to both its reputation and its finances — donations are down — that will shadow the charity for a long time,” Segal writes in the Times.

As in all crises, preparation is key to dealing with a potential sex-harassment scandal, and most organizations could potentially face such a scandal. Save the Children’s case underscores some of the issues for which to be prepared.

Photo Credit: Brunswick Group

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