Crisis media management lessons from the 'white saviour' row

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Crisis lessons from the 'white saviour' row

When we think of crisis media management incidents we tend to recall those which have embroiled some of the world’s biggest brands.

But, as anyone who has been on one of our crisis media management courses will know, a crisis can strike any organisation, no matter how big or small.

And charities are no exception. If we were to look back on the biggest crises of last year it would be hard to look past the one which engulfed Oxfam.

Over the past few days it has been Comic Relief which has found itself in the media and social media firing line, facing accusations of ‘white saviourism’.

The storm centred  on criticism from Labour MP David Lammy who said ‘the world does not need any more white saviours’ in response to footage of TV personality Stacey Dooley working alongside the charity in Africa.

He added that 'this perpetuates tried and unhelpful stereotypes'.



That tweet generated 10,000 comments, 14,000 likes and nearly 4,000 retweets. It also resulted in some disturbing headlines:


Stacey Dooley in ‘white saviour’ row with David Lammy after visit to Uganda for Comic Relief Independent

Stacey Dooley’s Comic Relief filming criticised by MP David Lammy in ‘white saviourism’ row Huff Post

Comic Relief under fire for ‘white saviours’ The Times

Emails show Comic Relief is ‘lying’ about MP David Lammy, says former adviser Huff Post


Whether you believe this is a reputational crisis for the charity or little more than a passing drama, there are lessons others can learn from the way it has been handled.



Comic Relief’s response to Mr Lammy’s criticism has been bold. In fact, you could go further and say it has gone on the offence.

Not only did it state that it made ‘no apologies’ for sending Miss Dooley to Uganda, but it also called out Mr Lammy for not responding to its attempts to involve him in making a film in Africa. It said: “We have previously asked David Lammy if he would like to work with us to make a film in Africa and he has not responded. The offer is still open."



Taking an aggressive approach to crisis media management and reputational issues is fraught with risk and can easily make difficult situations worse.

During the crisis media management incidents I have dealt with over the years, I have often felt a desire to fight back. No-one likes to be seen as a pushover.

If you have been wronged, and it is likely to cause lasting damage, then there is some merit to that approach.

But in most cases it is far better to stay well away from implying any criticism of those attacking you and try instead to build bridges and positive outcomes.




Rather than the ‘we’re right, you’re wrong approach’ taken by the charity, a much better approach for organisations who find themselves in this type of situation is to show a willingness to reflect and consider different viewpoints.

Whether or not you agree with Mr Lammy’s argument, the issue he raises is not a new one. In 2017 Comic Relief faced similar criticism following a video with Ed Sheeran.

For me, its response to the most recent criticism should have recognised that there is a valid conversation to be had on this issue or at the very least show that it is willing to listen to those who do not agree with its approach.

Charities, like other organisations, should be seen as being open to scrutiny and not above being challenged.


Social media

One of the most striking things about the whole incident it that it has been allowed to be played out on social media in front of an audience of millions, many of whom are only too willing to share their own views.



Not only did it respond to the original criticism on Twitter, but it has used the same platform to continue the debate with the politician, who is something of a prolific user.



Social media is a spectator sport and when organisations become embroiled in a head-to head argument it makes for great viewing and gives issues oxygen.

On our crisis media management and social media training courses we tell our delegates to take these conversations offline and not to get involved in a tit-for-tat series of posts. Surely someone from Comic Relief could have contacted the MP’s office and tried to take the issue away from social media.

Each instalment of this particular saga has led to a fresh wave of media coverage.

When organisations do get involved in a social media debate it can also become hard to maintain messaging consistency.

Note how Comic Relief went from saying that Mr Lammy had not responded to its requests for him to get involved, to stating that he had two meeting with them on the issue. Not quite the same thing.


Whether this issue results in a change of approach, lasting reputational damage or little more than red faces behind those famous red noses, there are clear crisis media management lessons here that other organisations can learn.


*Download our FREE eBook to find out more about planning for a crisis. It includes a checklist to helping you identify the right spokesperson, messaging templates and a risk register to help you identify your organisation’s vulnerabilities.



Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our journalist-led crisis communication and social media training.


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