Flop of the Month: the Oxfam guide to crisis mismanagement

When it transpires that senior execs working for a charity focused on humanitarian aid are sexually exploiting a crisis-struck population, it's clearly very bad news. But when it also comes to light that the charity actively sought to cover up transgressions, it becomes a comms disaster beyond reparation.

Flop of the week: Oxfam's crisis mismanagement
Flop of the week: Oxfam's crisis mismanagement

It began with details of an investigation published by The Times earlier this month, when the paper revealed that back in 2011 several employees at aid agency Oxfam had been regularly paying local prostitutes for sex in earthquake-struck Haiti.

Oxfam at the time had investigated whistleblower claims and four people were fired and three resigned as a result. But a failure to report its findings to regulators has led to accusations of a cover up, an investigation by the Charity Commission, and an exodus of donors.

Also see: 'Reputations are hard won and easily lost' - PR chiefs dissect Oxfam's crisis

In the days since the story broke, Oxfam has become a paragon of PR cack-handedness. While deputy CEO Penny Lawrence soon fell on her sword, admitting full responsibility and saying she was "ashamed", CEO Mark Goldring's response has been exemplary in how not to handle a crisis.

His ill-judged comments range from his claim that Oxfam did not cover up sexual misconduct incidents, to his weirdly defensive comment that it wasn't as if Oxfam had "murdered babies".

Goldring has since told a committee of MPs that there had been 26 reports of sexual misconduct since the news of abuse broke. He also said that Roland van Hauwermeiren, Oxfam's director in Haiti should not have been allowed to resign when his role in the scandal was revealed and admitted that Oxfam should have done more to warn future employers of his exploits.

But is it too little too late?

For many, that's clearly a 'yes'. Donors have responded in the most damaging way possible, with Oxfam haemorrhaging around 7,000 regular fund-paying supporters so far. Meanwhile, corporate partners such as Waterstones have raised concerns and the Department for International Development is reviewing its work with Oxfam.

As a result of Oxfam failing to manage a crisis when it happened — sacking the culprits, reporting allegations to regulators and thus distancing itself from their behaviour — it is faced with an escalating crisis almost entirely of its own making.

Are you ready for a crisis? Come and hear how top organisations handled major recent crises and learn exactly how to react at PRWeek's Crisis Communications conference this June.

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