The Oxfam PR Crisis: Too Little Too Late for Reputation Management?

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The Oxfam organization is a good example of how PR problems don’t just affect businesses, but also non-profit groups too. Any brand with a social media presence and an active connection to a consumer base can have problems with their PR. After all, it only takes one wrong message, or the uncovering of some hidden information to turn a company from people’s champion, into a social pariah.

Oxfam’s PR crisis began with the details of an investigation that the Times newspaper published in early 2018. The information revealed showed that in 2011, several of the big-name employees at the aid agency had been paying prostitutes for services when they were responsible for helping to rebuild the grief-stricken area of Haiti after an astronomical earthquake.

Why Oxfam Struggled with PR Management

Oxfam did respond well to whistleblowing in some ways during 2011. When the company started receiving reports about employee behavior, they instantly investigated the issues and four people were fired, while another three resigned from their jobs in response to what happened. However, the fact that the organization failed to report their findings meant that accusations of a cover-up began to emerge.

Donors quickly began to leave the charity as they felt they were being lied to about how their money is being spent. At the same time, an investigation was launched by the Charity Commission. Since the story came to light, the organization has become a mess of PR problems, with deputy CEO Penny Lawrence admitting responsibility for the problem and claiming that she was ashamed of how the crisis was so poorly handled.

Interestingly, CEO Mark Goldring wasn’t so effective with his PR efforts. Instead of admitting to the problem and apologizing, he claimed that Oxfam hadn’t covered up any incidents, and made strangely defensive comments such as “It isn’t as if Oxfam has murdered babies”.

Repairing Reputations: Too Little Too Late

After his desperate attempts to protect Oxfam through lying failed, Goldring went back to the press and revealed that there have been another 26 issues of sexual misconduct since the news about the other problems broke. He also noted that the director for Haiti shouldn’t have had the opportunity to leave the business after his role in the problem arose.

Although the Oxfam charity is now working to repair reputations, many believe that the group has done too little to save the relationships that the group once had with donors. Oxfam has lost approximately 7,000 regular supporters at this point, and many corporate partners have also issued concerns about whether they should continue their future with Oxfam.

Because Oxfam failed to respond to the crisis quickly when it happened, it has become one of a list of many companies in the press lately who are suffering from a PR crisis that is largely it’s own making. At this point, it’s difficult to know whether the company will be able to recover from the issue or not, particularly in an era where consumer trust is so low among businesses and charities alike.

Ronn Torossian is a public relations leader with over 15 years of professional experience

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Ronn Torossian with Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon

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