What you can learn from the Oxfam and Haiti crisis

In 2018, news broke out that some Oxfam employees were on the receiving end of allegations of sexual misconduct and other unacceptable behaviour, whilst representing the organisation as part of its response to the 2011 Haiti earthquake. The earthquake killed thousands, whilst displacing the majority of its survivors. Oxfam were sent out to offer their support to those left in the country and therefore, when this was discovered years later, the media went crazy and slammed Oxfam for not protecting the most vulnerable. It was all people could talk about for weeks.

When looking back to this event from a current communications and crisis management perspective, there are some key lessons that can be learnt from how Oxfam responded.

Apologise and take responsibility quickly  

Oxfam never denied what happened or tried to deflect the blame elsewhere, but chose to take the honest and apologetic approach. Instead of just apologising however, Oxfam consistently highlighted actions they had taken, their plans for the future and explained the ways in which they would stop this from happening again.

Although at times, they did take a stronger focus on process rather than empathy. 

Tweet detailing Oxfam's response to allegations of misconduct

It’s also important to highlight that Oxfam conducted their internal investigation in 2011, this means that they potentially had years to plan their communications response to the crisis before it broke on mainstream media. Although it is unclear what they had published on the subject prior to 2018. 

Keep your response in proportion and keep communicating 

Oxfam didn’t shy away from responding on their customer service channels. They put out multiple responses and gave their social media team the tools to respond to difficult questions but also kept responding to everyday queries at the same time. After all, not all stakeholders may be aware of the issue or just want their queries answered still.

Tweet showing Oxfam's response to a statement on comments made in the Select Committee

Tweet from Oxfam asking Nick how running training is going

Brief all your teams 

Despite lots of good responses, Oxfam was highly criticised for how chief executive Mark Goldring responded in an interview with the Guardian. Many claimed he just added more fuel to the fire.

Screen grab of Guardian article on interview with Oxfam's Chief Executive

There was also some anger and criticism of some responses from former senior staff

Embed your response in your organisation’s culture

On the 16th of February 2018 Oxfam announced it was setting up an independent commission of leading women’s rights experts to carry out a review of Oxfam’s working culture and practices. It created a global database of referees to stop dishonest or unreliable references and tripled its safeguarding budget.

It may not be needed for your organisation to set up an independent commission but you should ensure that learnings from your crisis are embedded in the way your organisation works in the future. 

Don’t try to erase history and make it easy for people to find out about your response

What do you find if you research this event on Google now? Interestingly, the first thing that appears when searching on Google is Oxfam’s official report on their official website.

The report is completely public and highlights the accusations made against each of the 5 employees, what they were actually charged with and what Oxfam’s plans are moving forward. This means that anyone wanting to know about the event will first be given the option to look at the factual information, before delving into old media articles.

How did the scandal affect the future of the charity?

There are still some, not many though, articles being published about the charity in 2023. However there is very little criticism on how Oxfam responded or dealt with the situation, they focus more on the actual employees. 

Screen grab of Mirror article on ten more staff being fired as a result of the scandal

Download this free resource: What you can learn from the Oxfam and Haiti Crisis


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