The PR lessons businesses can learn from the Oxfam crisis

Neil McLeod
Oxfam Officials Questioned By Government Committee
Mark Goldring ended up apologising for his own apology after he crassly stated it wasn’t as if Oxfam had “murdered babies in their cribs” (Source: Getty)

Oxfam, an organisation more familiar with helping in a crisis, has found itself embroiled in a crisis of its own making.

At every turn, the decisions made by the charity to quell the storm have done anything but.

Oxfam has misread the public mood. It has put the reputation of the company before doing what was right, and behaved like it is above the allegations they have been confronted with.

These allegations are nearly eight years old and by most accounts, Oxfam’s procedures have improved dramatically in that time. Where Oxfam has failed is in communicating coherently and sincerely with the public when it mattered, and because of this the company remains in the spotlight.

So when it comes to handling a high- profile media scandal, what are the PR lessons businesses can learn from the Oxfam crisis?

Use the CEO

Once the media begins to pursue the narrative of a crisis, the response of the chief executive – assuming they are not compelled to resign – is pivotal to the recovery of a company’s reputation.

In most cases, the chief executive should be made available throughout the period, becoming the face of the organisation to the public.

His or her first response must be delivered quickly and sincerely. It must leave the public in no doubt that the mistakes made have been understood, and that the necessary action will be taken to correct them.

A week into the scandal, Oxfam’s chief Mark Goldring ended up apologising for his own apology after he crassly stated it wasn’t as if Oxfam had “murdered babies in their cribs”. His attempt to improve the situation backfired badly.

The chief executive must be media trained and ready to engage.

Ditch the arrogance and start listening

The response of the charity was to immediately go on the defensive.

Goldring said that Oxfam did “anything but” cover up the incidents, despite also admitting the charity hid details of the revelations.

Nobody doubts the good work Oxfam does, but it doesn’t excuse bad behaviour, and it certainly doesn’t mean this should be ignored.

This response felt like Oxfam believed itself to be above the allegations it was facing, that it deserved an easier ride.

The same is true of many businesses which face crises. They may have had a good track record, but if stakeholders are demanding clear answers, that must be addressed without it coming across like an inconvenience.

Call in the experts

Although it should have happened earlier, Oxfam eventually called an external review. The company should act upon the findings as soon as possible.

Getting experts and consultants to review procedures and advise on measures to improve can often be a huge help. In business, this may be the advice of non-executive directors, lawyers, or PR consultants.

There are clear cost implications, but if it helps you restore trust, the outlay will be less than the alternative of losing business – or even the company itself.


Oxfam has lost 6,000 direct debits and multiple ambassadors during this scandal. These are the people who will feel most betrayed.

Oxfam must remind people of the good work the charity does and restore the trust of their main stakeholders.

Businesses under fire also need to remember their core stakeholders – customers. Ensuring that customers are in receipt of the full facts and what you are doing about the situation can be an important first step to rebuilding trust.

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