Small business lessons learnt from the Oxfam scandal

Here, Jennifer Janson looks at what small businesses can learn from Oxfam's perceived cover-up of allegations surrounding the improper conduct of its employees in Haiti in 2011.

In this SmallBusiness monthly series of ‘Small business lessons learnt’, Jennifer Janson, author of The Reputation Playbook and chairman of Six Degrees, will assess how a company recently in the news has handled a crisis, and provide top tips for small businesses to handle a similar incident in the best way possible.

The mainstream media has been awash with crises in recent weeks – whether it is the spectacular resignation of WPP’s CEO Sir Martin Sorrell, the smear campaign against Iceland managing director Richard Walker or the government’s handling of the Windrush debacle, during the meeting of Commonwealth heads of government, no less. In terms of lessons, we’ve been spoilt for choice. This month, however, I’ve chosen to focus on Oxfam, and its perceived cover-up of allegations surrounding the improper conduct of its employees in Haiti in 2011. This made news headlines for many weeks, and when you start to delve deeper into how the story unfolded, there are some important lessons for any business.

Be sensitive to cultural context

When it comes to effective crisis communications, it is important that you understand the ‘cultural barometer’ in relation to the issue you are facing. Hot on the heels of the #metoo movement, Oxfam’s perceived cover-up may well have generated more sustained interest than it otherwise might have. In Oxfam’s case, there’s not a lot the company could do about that, other than to recognise it and ensure not only that its response was sensitive to the general mood of the country, but also that its behaviour and actions were aligned with what it was saying.

If your industry itself is plagued by negative perception (think of industries like banking, estate agents, ‘spin doctors’), a seemingly small incident can be anything but, when it comes to media coverage. There’s not really a formula for gauging this general ‘sense’ – it is important that whoever is handling your company communications is completely up to date with sentiment in the news and social media. They must have their finger on the cultural pulse in order to react appropriately to any given situation. Don’t underestimate the importance of this.

Be transparent

There’s nothing better you can do to build trust during a crisis than to be radically transparent (within the boundaries of law, of course). When I started to do a little digging, I was astonished, and pleasantly surprised, to see that Oxfam decided to make its own internal report around the incident public. It’s here. And it makes for interesting reading. I can’t think of many companies or organisations who would be prepared to do this. Although you might be criticised for things that you have done or said, if you commit to being transparent about the issue it will be difficult to fault your intentions.

In an age when transparency carries significant weight among stakeholders of every description, it pays to revisit your values and your purpose as a business, and to ensure that these are being upheld by everyone in your organisation. Without exception. You must hold yourself and all your employees accountable for your actions. Even if you’re not facing a crisis now, you never know what the future might hold, and you want to be able to say you are confident, having all the information at the time, that you did the right thing.

Address the real question

This might be a slightly controversial statement, especially when conventional media training specifically teaches spokespeople how to ‘bridge’ difficult questions in order to answer the question you wished the interviewer had asked. I think what lies at the heart of the Oxfam story – and something it doesn’t appear to have addressed in a meaningful way – is why the decision was made at the time not to report the incident to the UK’s Charity Commission in greater detail than it did. Try to understand the source of questioning and to get to the real issue you need to address. Then you can address it, and move on. But be warned, words without action are meaningless.

Be prepared

The lesson that underpins every crisis that hits the headlines is that it pays to be prepared. Despite what you might think, creating a crisis plan doesn’t have to be onerous, particularly if you create it during ‘normal operations’ and not when you are in crisis mode. Here is some basic information you should include:

  • Contact details (including home and mobile) of anyone who will be part of your crisis team (include legal counsel and a communications person). Keep this team small.
  • Your operating approach – who will you use to do real time on and offline monitoring (both social and traditional media). How will they flag issues to you? Who has the authority to respond in real time? Who is their back-up? What is the process for escalating issues?
  • Write down your tone of voice – this will be more important than you realise. Make sure every communication supports your tone of voice (professional, serious, informal, witty, are just a few examples).
  • Make a list of your most important audiences in order of priority – think about employees, customers, suppliers, government bodies, investors. You’ll need to create slightly different communications for each, but listing them in priority order will give you a starting point.
  • Write down the communications process – what do employees do if they get a question from a journalist? What is your procedure for keeping external parties updated?
  • How will you handle the recovery phase? Once the storm has died down, how will you ensure there is no lasting reputational damage? Who are the experts (internal or external) you will want to call on? Who can do an independent post-mortem of the event, and tell you the hard truth about what you did and did not handle well?

You’ll probably find that you don’t even need more than two pages as a quick-reference. If you get a basic framework in place the only thing you have to remember when you are facing a crisis is where you saved it!

Further reading on reputation management

Ben Lobel

Delphine Hintz

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

Related Topics

Reputation management

Leave a comment