By Michelle Wang and James Fitzpatrick
Disclaimer: this article will be reviewing the Oxfam case solely from a public relations and crisis communications point-of-view (as that’s our area of expertise).
In February 2018, a front-page article from the Times alleged Oxfam – one of the UK’s largest charities – covered up claims of senior staff paying Haiti quake survivors for sex.
D- crisis communication response from Oxfam.
While the organisation’s response to the Times article (and fallout that followed) has been quick and comprehensive, they made three critical mistakes (among others) in their crisis communication response:
Key decision makers seemed to dismiss the seriousness of the initial internal incident allegations and therefore did not respond accordingly.
When the incident details were made public in 2018, the organisation’s initial response was stubborn and dismissive of a cover-up
The majority of the organisation’s crisis communications have focused on themselves, the context, and what they’ve done and have not paid enough attention to the victims and the damage the organisation has caused.
The incident itself is serious enough to cause extensive damage to the organisation’s reputation but the mistakes Oxfam made in their initial response has compounded the situation.
While the organisation’s new leadership has now taken full responsibility and is responding appropriately, they’re facing major threats to their funding around the world.
Below we’ll step through what happened and then explain our verdict in more detail.
9 February 2018
Oxfam – one of the UK’s largest charities – became the topic of a front-page article from The Times. In the article, The Times alleged Oxfam covered up claims that senior staff working in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake used prostitutes, some of whom may have been underage.
According to the investigation report obtained by The Times, then-country director Roland van Hauwermeiren, admitted to having prostitutes visit the residence rented for him by Oxfam. Instead of being dismissed, he was offered a deal that allowed him to resign and give one month’s notice if he co-operated with the investigation.
The Times article quotes the report as saying:
“This proposal was subsequently agreed with Barbara Stocking [former Oxfam CEO] . . . as there were potentially serious implications for the programme, affiliate relationships and the rest of the investigation if he were to be dismissed.”
A press release from Oxfam was published on the same day in response to The Times story. It denies claims of a cover-up, stating that the behaviour of its staff was “totally unacceptable.”
The press release says that four members of staff were dismissed as a result of Oxfam’s own internal investigation held in 2011, and that three – including Roland van Hauwermeiren – resigned before the end of the investigation. Oxfam adds that claims of underage girls being involved were unproven, and that it had publicly announced the investigation at the time.
In the same press release, Oxfam also states that the Charity Commission for England and Wales, which regulates the charity industry, had “confirmed that Oxfam had taken appropriate action and that it therefore had “no regulatory concerns.”
10 February 2018
The Charity Commission publishes a statement the next day stating that it was not given full details about the use of prostitutes by aid workers, and that it would have acted differently if it had known all the facts. According to a BBC article, the Times says that Oxfam did not warn other aid agencies about problem staff caught using prostitutes, with news emerging that Van Hauwermeiren went on to work elsewhere in the aid sector.
The same BBC article quotes Oxfam's chief executive, Mark Goldring, saying that the charity did "anything but" cover up the incident. But he admits the 2011 report released by the charity did not give details of the revelations, and only referred to them as "serious misconduct".
11 February 2018
A Guardian article reports that new allegations of Oxfam’s staff involvement with prostitution during its 2006 mission to Chad have arisen, with Roland van Hauwermeiren being the head of Oxfam in Chad at the time.
Meanwhile, Oxfam publishes a press release announcing new measures for the prevention and handling of sexual abuse cases, with Oxfam GB Chair of Trustees Caroline Thomson saying that:
“...it is clear that such behaviour is completely outside our values and should never be tolerated. (…) We apologise unreservedly. We have made big improvements since 2011 and today I commit that we will improve further.”
She continues to say that staff members had been coming forward with “concerns about how staff were recruited and vetted” following the recent media reports.
In the same statement, Oxfam announces an initial action plan to further improve safeguarding within the charity, including strengthening the vetting and recruitment of staff.
According to the BBC, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt warns that ministers could cut off funding for Oxfam if it cannot account for the way it handled claims.
12 February 2018
The Charity Commission opens a statutory inquiry into Oxfam – the most serious action it can take – and says that it has concerns Oxfam “may not have fully and frankly disclosed” everything it knew about the claims, including at the time in 2011, the way Oxfam handled the incidents since, and “the impact that these have both had on public trust and confidence”.
At the same time, Oxfam’s deputy chief executive Penny Lawrence resigns over the handling of the sex scandal, saying that she was “ashamed” and takes full responsibility.
“I am desperately sorry for the harm and distress that this has caused to Oxfam’s supporters, the wider development sector and most of all the vulnerable people who trusted us,” she says in the Oxfam press release.
BBC reports that Oxfam also faces a threat from the European Commission that it is ready to “cease funding any partner not living up to high ethical standards”. The European Commission had given €1.7m to Oxfam’s Haiti programme in 2011.
13 February 2018
In a Twitter post, president of Haiti Jovenel Moise condemned the actions of Oxfam as an “extremely serious violation of human dignity”, and a senior government source in Haiti confirmed to the BBC that an investigation will now be launched into foreign aid agencies operating in the country.
14 February 2018
Oxfam’s celebrity ambassador Minnie Driver is the first to step down from her role, with Oxfam confirming that more than 1,200 people cancelled their direct debit payments to charity during the three days after the first reports of the scandal emerged.
15 February 2018
In an open letter to Belgian media (and as reported by the BBC), former Oxfam director Roland Van Hauwermeiren denies paying for sex but admits some “mistakes”. He also denies that a reception he hosted was, as alleged by the Times, a sex party.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu steps down from his role as ambassador for Oxfam on the same day.
16 February 2018
Oxfam announces on 16 February 2018 that it is setting up an independent commission with leading women’s rights experts to carry out a review of working culture and practices as well as a global database of referees to stop dishonest or unreliable references and triple its safeguarding budget.
The charity's international executive director Winnie Byanyima promises the charity would "do justice" and "atone for the past". She is the most senior Oxfam executive to speak on the issue. In contrast, chief executive for Oxfam GB, Mark Goldring, tells the Guardian he believes attacks on the charity are "out of proportion to the level of culpability".
The BBC reports that Oxfam has agreed to stop bidding for UK government funding until it can show it meets the "high standards" required.
International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt says the charity has "a long way to go" before regaining public trust.
17 February 2018
Oxfam apologises in a full-page print advertisement in the Guardian, stating that they are:
“so sorry for the appalling behaviour that happened in our name (…) to the people of Haiti and other places where the conduct of Oxfam staff has been reprehensible.”
19 February 2018
Oxfam publishes a redacted version of the 2011 inquiry into the Haiti sex abuse and will present the original report to the government in Haiti. The report reveals that three of the men accused of sexual misconduct physically threatened witnesses during the charity’s 2011 investigation.
20 February 2018
Chief executive for Oxfam GB, Mark Goldring, tells MPs on the international development select committee that the charity has lost 7,000 regular donors since the scandal emerged.
22 February 2018
A BBC article reports that Haiti suspends Oxfam GB’s operations. The country’s minister of planning and external cooperation, Aviol Fleurant, said that Oxfam made a “serious error” by failing to inform Haitian authorities of the allegations, and that a decision of the charity’s right to operate in Haiti would be made in about two months.
17 March 2018
A Guardian article reports that Oxfam is accused of further failures in Haiti by keeping a senior aid worker there for more than a year despite reported sexual harassment claims. The charity is alleged to have attempted to “contain” allegations against Raphael Mutiku, an engineer who led Oxfam’s installation of water supplies after the earthquake, with the charity confirming that the decision not to dismiss Mutiku was made by Van Hauwermeiren.
16 May 2018
Chief executive of Oxfam GB, Mark Goldring, announces that he is to stand down as chief executive at the end of 2018, citing the scandal and the need for “fresh vision and energy” at the charity.
14 June 2018
BBC reports that Haiti is withdrawing Oxfam GB’s rights to operate in the country for the “violation of its (Haiti’s) laws and serious breach of the principle of human dignity”.
11 June 2019
The Charity Commission’s report is published, criticising Oxfam for the way it dealt with claims of serious sexual misconduct by its staff in Haiti. The commission said that there was “a culture of poor behaviour” at the charity, and issued it with an official warning over its “mismanagement”.
Oxfam has published a statement in response. In the statement, Caroline Thomson, Chair of Trustees says what happened in Haiti was “shameful” and that they are “deeply sorry”, with the incident being “a terrible abuse of power, and an affront to the values that Oxfam holds dear.”
“The Commission’s findings are very uncomfortable for Oxfam GB but we accept them. We now know that the 2011 investigation and reporting of what happened in Haiti was flawed; more should have been done to establish whether minors were involved.”
Ms Thomson then added that every member of staff was being put through basic safeguarding training and 95% of them had already completed it.
D- crisis communication response from Oxfam.
While Oxfam’s more recent responses have been passable, their initial response was almost non-existent, and it’s made the job of re-building their reputation much more difficult.
It seems that key decision makers made the critical mistake of not taking the initial allegations seriously or assuming that they could successfully ‘downplay the story’ rather than acknowledge it head on.
Lord Bates adequately summarised Oxfam’s initial response failings in his address to the House of Lords on 20 February 2018:
“… Oxfam failed under the watch of Barbara Stocking and Penny Lawrence. They did not provide a full report to the Charity Commission; they did not provide a full report to their donors; they did not provide any report to prosecuting authorities. In my view, they misled, quite possibly deliberately, even as their report concluded that their investigation could not rule out the allegation that some of the women involved were actually children. They did not think that it was necessary to report to the police in either Haiti or the country of origin of those accountable.”
Since then, the response has improved with the organisation publishing statements in reply to news articles or fresh allegations. Most statements have included an apology and outlined the steps they will take be taking to either address the allegations or to improve the charity’s operations, such as new measures for the prevention and handling of sexual abuse cases.
On the most part, these replies have demonstrated empathy and their acceptance for the charity’s role in the incident, however, not all leaders followed suit.
Former Oxfam GB chief executive Mark Goldring’s statement to the Guardian about the attacks on the charity being “out of proportion to the level of culpability” do not reflect the charity’s official statements, instead coming across as a continued attempt to downplay the severity of the situation.
Even if you think the criticisms are ‘out of proportion’, if your organisation is clearly at fault, you have to put pride aside and accept full responsibility. Any other approach will make your task more difficult and the road to recovery longer. Your stakeholders want to be assured that you totally understand the damage you’ve caused to the victims.
More recently, Oxfam have shown more transparency by publishing the 2011 inquiry into the Haiti sex abuse (albeit redacted, with the original report going to the Haiti Government).
The report openly reveals that three of the men accused of sexual misconduct physically threatened witnesses during the charity’s 2011 investigation.
Oxfam’s tangible action plan also demonstrates that they are committed to changing for the better, as authorities and the general public alike are able to hold the organisation accountable for any perceived changes or non-action.
While it’s important to detail how you will resolve the situation and prevent it from occurring again, Oxfam should consider reserving as much of their crisis communications to a focus on the victims.
As sociologists Cerulo and Ruane prove in their analysis of over 183-well known corporate or celebrity apologies, the least effective apologies are ‘offender-driver’ apologies in which the ‘apologiser’ focuses too much on themselves and the motivation or context surrounding the mistake.
Oxfam’s crisis communications have undoubtedly improved but the multiple failings in their initial response are a stark lesson for all future executives and leaders.