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It has been a tough few day’s for one of Britain’s biggest charities.
Oxfam has found itself firmly in the media spotlight since The Times first reported on Friday (9/2) serious allegations about the conduct of senior aid workers in Haiti during relief efforts.
The story, which has subsequently been followed up by a number of other publications and broadcast media, relates to events from 2011.But it plunged the charity into a crisis media management incident now.
That crisis deepened further over the weekend with suggestions the charity covered up allegations that staff used prostitutes in Haiti in 2011, and reports of a similar scandal in Chad in 2006. And Aid Secretary Penny Mordaunt has threatened to pull the charity’s funding in light of the scandal.
But in this blog we are going to concentrate on the statement Oxfam issued in response to the initial report in The Times and subsequent interest from the wider media.
Let’s start with the good.
Oxfam’s statement is packed with action.
We learn that an investigation was carried out at the time and that four members of staff were dismissed as a result and that a further three resigned.
The behaviour uncovered by The Times in Haiti 2011 was totally unacceptable, contrary to our values and the high standards we expect of our staff. Our full statement: https://t.co/0lKgom5YIG— Oxfam (@oxfamgb) February 9, 2018
It also states that a ‘thorough review’ was carried out after the investigation and that this led to the creation of a dedicated safeguarding team and a whistleblowing hotline as a part of a package of measures to prevent this type of incident from happening again.
And it informs us that a range of other bodies were kept informed throughout the investigation, including the Charity Commission and the Department for International Development.
In any crisis media management response it is crucial that organisations detail the action they are taking or have already taken to rectify the situation and to ensure it cannot happen again.
Of course, the charity has an advantage in a way in that it is responding to something that happened in 2011 rather than an incident which was only just breaking, but it still serves as a template for the sort of detailed action that is needed in effective crisis responses.
While the statement is strong on action, there is little in the way of empathy or compassion.
In fact, in a 289 word statement – pretty lengthy for a crisis response – there is no mention of the victims of the bullying, harassment, intimidation and sexual misconduct offences which led to the dismissals and resignations.
The closest it gets is a line at the end of the statement which says ‘we know that, like us, our supporters will be distressed by what has happened’.
But that does beg the question about the distress of those caught up in these events in Haiti seven years ago.
On our crisis media management training courses we use the acronym CARE to show what statements and media interviews in these situations need to include.
If you’ve not been on one of those courses, or read this blog before, it stands for Compassion, Action, Reassurance and Examples.
Good crisis statements start by expressing compassion, concern and empathy for victims or those involved in an incident.
The other thing that struck me about Oxfam’s statement was that, despite its length, none of it was attributed to anyone.
It is important for leaders to show that they are taking responsibility during a crisis and a quote from a chief executive, or other senior figure, can add real weight to statements.
Certainly, if you are going to issue a response nearing 300 words, there is plenty of scope to turn some of it into quotes which add a personal touch and show visible leadership.
Chief executive Mark Golding has subsequently carried out interviews and a press release was issued yesterday (11/2) with quotes from Caroline Thomson, Oxfam GB’s Chair of Trustees. And Oxfam International’s executive director Winnie Byanyima told Reuters TV in New York that she was ‘deeply hurt’ by the scandal and added that ‘it breaks my heart’.
Some personal responses like these in the initial statement would have made it much stronger. And Oxfam is going to need much more of these as it scrambles to contain a growing crisis.
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