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Oxfam and The President’s Club– An example of how to deal with a media crisis?

16Mar Posted by Ben Rothschild

Within the first two months of 2018 two major scandals have dominated the UK media landscape. The first incident involved the annual dinner of The Presidents Club, held on the 18th January. Undercover Financial Times (FT) reporters working at the men-only event uncovered a range of inappropriate behaviour, mostly involving the harassment of the 130 female-hostesses who had been provided for the event. In February, the news then broke that the charity Oxfam had been implicated in a major sex-scandal in Haiti, where high-ranking executives and aid providers were accused of hiring sex workers when operating in the country following the earthquake in 2010.

These two incidents demonstrated how easily reputations can be damaged, even when those involved only represent a small percentage of an organisation’s workforce.

These damaged reputations leads to a variety of questions – how did these organisations handle the media scrutiny and backlash? And how can organisations such as Oxfam recover following a reputational scandal?

How did Oxfam and the Presidents Club handle the media scandal?

In the case of the Presidents Club, the day after the accusations within the FT came to light, a statement was issued on the website announcing that in effect the Presidents Club would be closing down and the remaining funds distributed to a variety of children’s charities.

Whilst this statement was certainly swift and decisive, was it effective in limiting the media and public backlash against the Club and its members? The behaviour at the Presidents Club annual dinner had apparently been remarked upon in previous years, with the behaviour described at the 2010 iteration as “boys tucking into the girls” – for many companies who sponsored a yearly table or individuals who have attended the yearly dinner the backlash has been severe. The majority of questions posed to attendees of the club have been met with a wall of silence or the formulaic statement of ‘Not aware of any of the alleged incidents”, but both brand and individual reputations have certainly suffered.

On the other hand, the fallout of the Oxfam scandal has been both lengthier and managed very differently – in no doubt due to the size and scope of the charity. Given that the charity consists of nearly 10,000 employees, instantly ceasing all charitable giving was clearly not an option, and as such a managed response to the media has been necessary.

Following the outbreak of the story in The Times on the 9th February, the charity has tried to limit the reputational shock in a number of ways.  Firstly, Oxfam claimed that the charity had not covered up the issue, and that it made its internal inquiry into the allegations public at the time. After this was questioned by the Charity Commission, coupled with another accusation in the Times, Oxfam later agreed that the organisation had not been completely transparent when disclosing the accusations. A continued stream of accusations in the media followed this, with the Oxfam deputy chief executive resigning over the handling of the scandal, celebrity ambassadors severing ties with the company, and Oxfam agreeing to stop bidding for UK government funding. On the 17th February Oxfam supporters published an apology in the Guardian, urging other supporters to not abandon the charity.

Oxfam certainly did suffer significant reputational damage following the revelations in the Times, the damage does appear to have been reasonably limited. Whilst thousands of supporters have cancelled their donations, the charity is still supporting relevant causes across the globe, whilst the mainstream national media has ceased to cover the issues in great detail. Clearly, Oxfam’s technique of apologising repeatedly, accepting blame for not investigating the issues correctly, as well as removing key members of staff responsible does seem to have mollified the media, allowing the charity to begin the process of repairing its reputation in the background and out of the spotlight.

How can an organisation repair its reputation following a major shock?

When in a crisis there are several rules that organisations should follow to limit long-term damage to reputation:

  • Be honest – accept blame were appropriate, but always seek to bridge to your messaging. By doing so, an organisation will receive credit for honesty, whilst also presenting the preferred argument.
  • Be quick – a swift response to a crisis is vital. The longer the wait before action is taken, the more an organisation’s reputation will suffer.
  • Present a solution – show the actions that the organisation is taking to rectify the problem and deal with the issue, rather than just simply apologising.
  • Link with third parties to solve broader issues – working with external experts or authorities will benefit an organisation by highlighting the desire to resolve the issue.

Whilst the above steps may help organisations limit reputational damage, it is an unfortunate fact that a crisis will almost always result in reputations being damaged, no matter what steps are taken. Limiting the damage that an organisation’s reputation sustains can ensure that credibility and trust are regained more quickly following a crisis – however, time is, as always, the best medicine.

Ben Rothschild
Ben Rothschild

Ben is a project lead on some of Sermelo’s large international clients. Since joining Sermelo in 2016, he has supported clients to help them achieve their communications objectives with a particular focus on copywriting, media relations, internal communications, social media support and account management. He has worked across a broad range of both business and consumer facing sectors including insurance, aerospace, mining, automotive, property, electrical goods and travel.

A key component of Ben’s role is developing and implementing multi-channel media engagement campaigns for clients, including FM Global, Andermatt Swiss Alps, De Beers, Norsk Hydro and Oerlikon. These campaigns have resulted in significant international, UK national and trade media coverage.

Ben has a degree in History and Ancient History from the University of Exeter. Outside of work, he is interested in football, cricket, tennis, and is also a keen reader.

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