Oxfam: Crisis comms can only buy time – not a second chance

Is reputation management the most important thing in crisis communication or is it fixing the underlying issues?

This was a question I was asked by someone I respect a lot, a former journalist, and I thought it deserved further exploration – something that we can all think about and try to answer.

The view about “managing reputation” is disputed by some, including academics. They argue that reputation cannot be managed because it is earned, and one’s reputation is in the eyes of the beholder.

I do believe that reputation can be managed because the word “management”, stripped down to its most basic definition, is about control, influence and ability to make things happen. Where the divergence occurs, is in the PR and communication practitioners’ ability to do that.

Let’s take look at KFC’s “FCK” one page add. It was a brilliantly executed marketing PR stunt and it got the media, consumers and us talking about it. Hats off to those who came up with it.

But – and there is a massive “but” here – this add cannot cover significant shortcomings in KFC’s supply chain, in its inability to pre-empt such a crisis happening in the first place, or in its failure to identify this issue in time and advise customers that restaurants will be closed for an indefinite period of time.

And this brings us to the wider, more complex issue that my friend and I were discussing – charities and public trust: Oxfam, Save the Children, Red Cross and even Lady Diana’s landmine charity. I’m not going to go over the stories that many of you are very familiar with by now, but I’m going to take a holistic and different approach to these cases.

As human beings, we are all fallible and certainly prone to mistakes – I am, for sure. We hold charities’ executives and staff in exceptionally high regard and put them up on a pedestal, almost ready to bow to them. The question is “why”?

They are not saints, they are humans – humans make mistakes and the behaviours that the media has uncovered, including the whistleblowing of some, are inappropriate and unethical. That’s clear. What we need to be very careful with and try to understand is why these behaviours and actions were allowed to happen and persist in the first place, not look at the packaging the news was delivered in: who said what, and why they did it so badly.

As PR practitioners, we should look at the whole picture, not just focus on the last brush stroke – PR eats strategy for breakfast (or it should). There is little point in training anyone how to speak on TV and cry rivers if the issues that caused the crisis to begin with were not tackled head on.

We, the PR and Strategic Communication practitioners cannot do that – that’s not our role. But we can advise and recommend that issues are appropriately investigated internally, that the weeds are exterminated and that safeguards are put in place.

Do you know – or have you ever asked yourself – how important these safeguards are? How much their thorough verification/audit by foreign aid donors is? What checks and balances any charity has in place to ensure that the entire journey of the taxpayers’ money is mapped from A-Z?

No one can dispute the amazing work these charities have done and continue to do. No one can dispute that only a part of what you and I donate to charities goes to the actual cause. Neither can anyone dispute that many of the world’s charities are invaluable in raising awareness on a variety of significant causes.

We live in a world of “smoke and mirrors” – many of us genuinely believe that coming up with a smart marketing stunt or having a brilliant media response would make the problem go away. No, neither will. What these buy any organisation, especially for charities now, is time to get their house in order – they are unlikely to be given a second chance by the public, by their donors or by the various government aid agencies who fund them.

I’ve asked my online community to share their thoughts on the Oxfam scandal with me. For a community that loves to share, this time it was unusually quiet. Charlotte Dimond’s views on this are given solely from a donor perspective:

I ended my regular donations with Oxfam after at least 15 years of giving. It wasn’t because of what had happened, although I found that abhorrent, it was because of their terrible response. As a donor I would have expected some form of communication, I normally get at least two letters a month from them asking for more money, however, I heard nothing! The first communication I had was a letter today saying that they were sorry to see that I’d stopped my donations. The CEO’s response to the issue in the press has been sadly lacking in judgement and way off the mark in terms of meeting expectations.

We shouldn’t shy away from asking hard, uncomfortable questions – this is one way of demonstrating to our clients that we understand their business and what best practice in that business should look like; that we understand more than their “song and dance” marketing and PR practices.

We should seek to understand what caused this decades-long promiscuous practice of many charities and why it was brushed over by their executives, hidden somewhere in a drawer or HR file. Why haven’t lessons been learned and safeguards put in place? Why haven’t the activities in the field been carefully and constantly monitored? Why haven’t discussions with the beneficiaries of those charitable actions been held to actually learn what staff did and behaved like?

There is one question you need to ask if you work for one of these charities: “What are your safeguard policies and practices?”. You may not like the answer… but, at least, you know what you can do about it.

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Photo by Madi Robson on Unsplash

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Founding Chartered PR Practitioner, CIPR Board member (2018), former UK Government Communication Services and Institute of Directors mentor, published author and university lecturer, Ella has almost 20 years of high level government and international organisations experience in corporate reputation, leadership and crisis management, across business disciplines and governments, including investment markets, lender organisations, national and international media, NGOs and affected communities. She is a 2014 Service Award Winner of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Assessor of CIPR's Chartered Scheme, an elected member of the CIPR Council (2017-2018), Founder of CIPR’s Energy Leadership Platform, former Chair of CIPR’s Foresight Panel and a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management. She handled some of the most prominent international crisis of recent times, she developed the Leadership Development Programme for SPE’s MENA young engineers and she has also been an adviser to several governments on their national branding strategies. Her list of clients includes McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, Total, BP, Shell, Centrica, KazTransOil, Averda, The World Bank, Private Investment Development Group, the European Commission, the European Bank For Reconstruction and Development and many others. She is also Robert Gordon University's Lead Trainer for the Crisis Communication Diploma (CIPR Specialist Diploma).

  1. Effective strategic PR is also about identifying risks, planning for them and/or encouraging the appropriate teams in our organisations to do so. I say repeatedly to my colleagues “I do not do spin, I do truth.” There is no getting around being accountable for socially irresponsible actions. PR Leadership also means signaling ahead of potential risks, and if the right teams do not listen; quietly drafting a crisis action plan just in case it becomes needed.

  2. I have not ended my regular monthly donation to Oxfam in the belief that the work they do still helps disadvantaged people. However I am thinking hard about ending them, not because of the scandals, but because, ultimately, people who learn to rely on aid find it difficult to become self reliant. As has happened in Haiti.

    So I suspect I shall switch my charity giving to charities that support people setting up businesses and learning to fend for themselves. I was a trustee of Trust for Africa’s Orphans, which taught women how to grow good crops and livestock, for themselves and to sell to help pay – not school fees – but school books and uniforms. This charity has now lost its funding because the government found it easier to give its 0.7% largesse to big charities like Oxfam.

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