The Oxfam scandal: how would you have handled it?

Early last month (February) it was reported that Oxfam aid workers had paid for prostitutes while working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. When the incident was discovered, the charity kept its head low and tried to hide the story, followed by a fumbled apology when the scandal came to light — which was met with backlash from the public and the cutting off of thousands of donors' direct debits.

The Drum asked industry professionals what they would have done in Oxfam's situation.

Daniel Todaro, managing director, Gekko Group

The response was perhaps rather awkward in approach, almost like handling the proverbial hot potato. The matter should have been dealt with immediately, with authority and integrity, establishing a hard-line stance and demonstrating its remorse. Instead, it created more distrust in the brand and questions those who run the organisation.

While this was an inexcusable, repugnant revelation, there is much more good that Oxfam has done and continued to do around the globe. Marketers, media and government must highlight the positives and avoid fuelling what has become a witch hunt. No charity, including Oxfam, will allow themselves to fall foul like this again.

Alex Price, managing director, 93digital

It seems like the senior management doesn’t understand how internet culture and the prevailing sense of right or wrong works right now. Mark Goldring (Oxfam chief executive) apologised for the behaviour of a few directors, yet in the same breath tried to brush it off as the acts of a select few.

Even if that’s the case, that’s not how it works anymore. You fess up, whole-heartedly, and over time you feed positive content to rectify the current imbalance. As time goes by the whole picture has started to appear, and it does seem that this scandal will encapsulate the rest of the charity industry; Oxfam is one of the better organisations trying to clean up its act.

Own up to your failings and make change transparent and demonstrative. Your business relies on the kindness of strangers; show them that you deserve a second chance.

Kevin Taylor, director, Gravytrain

In an organisation of such magnitude, there is the likelihood of skeletons in the closet, but holding its hands up to this fact and immediately looking towards a plan of action would have been a more suitable response.

Integrity and honesty are always the best policy, regardless your official ‘code of conduct’. When things go wrong, be transparent, be honest and take responsibility for your actions. Oxfam seemed unprepared for such a large-scale issue, which left it looking like a rabbit in the headlights. Preparing for the worst possible scenario, with action plans ready and in place, would have allowed it to be proactive rather than reactive.

Charlotte Willcocks, senior social strategist, Impero

When the story broke Oxfam was passive. It let the media dictate the narrative and allowed it to insinuate that it had no control or screenings for volunteers. Even when the head of the charity appeared on breakfast news, we were greeted with apathy at best: “How can we keep tabs on everyone?” I mean, come on!

This is not simply a quick marketing fix. Its core value states ‘when disaster strikes Oxfam’s priority is to start saving lives, then to help people come back stronger’. In reality, it appears that its priority was more to ‘exploit people in their care’. Transparency as to where the money goes when it enters the big charity machine is already an issue – it has not only done itself a huge disservice, the rest of the charity sector will also feel the full brunt of increased distrust in the system from consumers.

Michael Moszynski, chief executive officer, London Advertising

Oxfam has found itself in the eye of the storm. The traditional approach for corporations in this situation is to try and minimise, and due to legal concerns, try and finesse the issue. In today’s world it is imperative to do the opposite: take the issue out into the middle of the street and shoot it. I feel that Oxfam has prevaricated between the two.

Richard Buchanan, managing director and founder, The Clearing

Trust and integrity are hygiene factors for any brand, but when it comes to charity brands, they’re critical. Add into the mix growing public skepticism towards large charities, and it’s difficult to see Oxfam emerging unscathed from the scandal.

Clearly, the actions of a few have been profoundly damaging for the brand, but if there are any crumbs of hope to be offered here it’s this – strong brands provide air cover in times of need. And let’s be clear, Oxfam is and continues to be a strong brand. Sure, the scandal could have been handled better, but it’s what happens next that will be critical to regaining trust. The road to redemption starts with an apology, clearly communicating the issue was dealt with in 2011 and focusing on what they do best – making a genuine difference to people living in poverty.

Alex Jones, campaign manager, Zazzle Media

While Oxfam says it has been open and honest about documenting these reports of sexual assault in publicly available reports, the reaction from the general public has criticised the charity for its lack of transparency, some even going as far as to accuse the charity of creating a cover-up. Chief executive Mark Goldring has been accused of trying to downplay the scandal, and it could be argued he has made things worse. This seems to be a case of trying to defend the indefensible.

Alex Shears, digital PR consultant, Zazzle Media

The charity must recognise its failures and should be deeply saddened by the sexual exploitation that’s happened under its watch. My first question would be, what is it doing to make it right? It has now published a full-page apology in The Guardian. This would have been the first thing I did, after putting measures in place to ensure this never happens again. On 19 February it also published a redacted version of the internal report.

Taking responsibility is crucial in managing this major incident and being completely transparent is the next step to overcome this. The lessons learned from this case should focus on warning other charities, better vetting processes and implementing more measures for the prevention of sexual abuse cases. This also needs to be strongly communicated to the press.

Will De Groot, cultural strategist, The Elephant Room

What we find interesting is that this is just another in a long line of scandals to hit prominent institutions that have long been seen to uphold society. Whether it’s politics, the media, sport or, now, the third sector, we’re witnessing the steady fragmentation of trust and erosion of credibility as a direct consequence of both cases of abuse of power and an assumption that you can get away with it.

You can’t expect people to offer their trust without it being earned, so instances such as this do nothing to temper the rising cynicism of an increasingly empowered consumer. The damaging impact for brands who fail to meet consumer expectations and get on the wrong side of culture is long-term, particularly for those that fall within this broader narrative of mistrust. We could talk about transparency, the need for greater honesty, relinquishing control to the consumer – but in reality, this is about brands fundamentally needing to find meaningful and creative means to contribute and/or create a relevant, progressive cultural narrative.

This article was originally published in the charity issue of The Drum Network magazine series. You can purchase your copy here.

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