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Making controversy as positive as possible – how to manage a PR crisis better than Oxfam

By Liz Hollis

The investigation into a sex scandal cover up must have been like a bad dream for Oxfam’s management team and press office. The phone ringing non-stop, reporters asking nasty questions about cover ups and sex scandals. What to do?

 Well, for starters what you don’t do is wheel out your chief executive who digs you into the crisis even deeper. In this case, it was Oxfam’s chief exec Mark Goldring who spoke to The Guardian and said he didn’t comprehend ‘the ferocity of the attack’ on Oxfam. He felt his organisation was being treated as though it had ‘murdered babies in their cots.’

If ever there was a case study of how not to handle a crisis, this is it.

Ouch. Mark Goldring’s response was bad. Very bad. Firstly, because his language was way too brutal for the subject matter. Secondly, because his tone wasn’t contrite enough and seemed to compound the idea that it was all the media’s fault for publishing the awful story in the first place.

Instead, of making things better he made them much worse. His tone, style, choice of words – it would have been hard to come out with worse comments. “He used brutal language,” says Mark Houldey, editor at KNS News, a press agency selling news to the national media.

It would have been better for Mr Goldring and his team to have shown more humility and understanding. It would have been good to have heard him show concern and describe how Oxfam is sorry, very sorry and what they are doing to put things right.

During a PR crisis, there is little room for aggression – in this case in the unwise choice of language. It will seem like unpleasant bullying by a big brand that has been caught out. So what should you do when the press arrives at your door and it all seems to be turning into a PR mess?

Media crisis management checklist

  1. Set out clearly what actions you are taking to deal with the situation.
  2. Show what action you are taking. People want to see you have the situation in hand so set out how you are dealing with it and what you propose to do in future. Explain that you are doing X and Y and that you’ve taken control of the situation. Show what you are doing to put things right.
  3. Demonstrate empathy, approachability and responsiveness. Victims suffered distress as a result of this scandal and Oxfam would have done well to show some empathy towards what they might have been through.
  4. Say sorry. It’s the hardest word but the most important and the one the public want to hear when a company has done something wrong.
  5. Never use brutal or aggressive comebacks. This inflames the situation rather than playing down the emotionally charged aspects.
  6. Use calm, empathetic language and show you care.
  7. Take responsibility.
  8. Put names to statements rather than anonymous press releases.
  9. Give the media as much detail as you can – an in-depth report with statistics is always good.
  10. Remember it’s the cover up that will get you in the end. Oxfam should have dealt with the sexual misconduct cases much earlier and much more assertively. It could have been a chance to demonstrate that they were taking control, working with other organisations to eradicate bad behaviour and leading the way in changing the culture.

Nul points for your media crisis handling Oxfam.

It’s also worth checking out this interesting piece in PR week where PR chiefs dissect the Oxfam reputation management.