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Oxfam Crisis Goldring

Oxfam Crisis notes

Oxfam is in crisis. There must be a whole book of ‘lessons’ from the implosion of this once great British organisation. An implosion caused by a seven-year-old scandal exposed by The Times newspaper last Friday. It is ghastly to watch and a text book example of a ‘crisis’ where new damaging elements of the negative story continue to emerge every day.

Oxfam will be lucky to survive

I feel compelled to declare my personal opinion about this Oxfam crisis. As many know I have worked a lot with charities and agencies in the developing world. I am a huge fan of ‘development work’ in all its guises. If more people knew the great work that is done, the more they would support it.

But it seems all too common for individual incidents of bad behaviour or bad management to be blown out of all proportion in order to discredit all or any development work. There are swathes of society who, with little knowledge of the reality on the ground in developing countries, believe money should not be ‘wasted’ helping people ‘over there’. They are quick to take any example of mismanagement or misappropriation of funds to prove their preconception. The Daily Mail in particular plays to this agenda in ways that many find hugely distasteful. My sympathy is all with Oxfam although of course not with those accused of wrong doing.

Oxfam crisis analysis

That said let’s look at the lessons of this Oxfam crisis.

Public outrage gets ahead of the law. The press likes to bay for blood as soon as any act that would offend a Victorian prude, comes to light. (Always remember this is fake outrage. Few journalists are paragons of virtue in their private lives). The Oxfam country director in Haiti, 7 years ago, admitted to paying for sex. Just to help the headline writers, the party where this happened has been dubbed a ‘Caligula like orgy’ – by ‘sources’ that spoke to The Times. He agreed to step down but his employer, Oxfam, chose not to sack him and not to prevent him working in his profession in the future.

Bad media crises have a habit of having many chapters. If the thing journalists have got their teeth into initially in a crisis is not actually illegal they will often switch the focus to ‘transparency’. Transparency is really difficult when dealing with personnel, commercial and many other issues.

The take-way is that as soon as a crisis starts, someone in the affected organisation needs to be reminding decision-makers that at any moment the whole focus could switch to ‘transparency’. Organisations need to be prepared to be totally transparent or find rock-solid reasons why they cannot be. Transparency can be brutal. Here is an article in CEO Magazine about transparency in a crisis.

Oxfam crisis: what could be done

Anyway, the only way to stop a crisis like this once it gets going is:

  • Sack a whole load of people or have them resign. Be careful if you sack, they may sue as Sharon Shoesmith, the social worker in the Baby P case did. And she won. Story here. 
  • Make an abject public apology. Here is Oxfam’s from CEO Mark Goldring. 
  • Make vast amounts of detail available to journalists who will quickly get bored.
  • Have spokespeople trained and ready to handle the sort of aggressive questioning that we have seen on every serious news programme.
  • Hire someone like Alistair Campbell or a specialist crisis firm (or us) to do your messaging and reactive lines. These need to be much more than wishy-washy statements of good intent. You will need substance and a forensic like approach to possible questions.
Oxfam Crisis Mark Goldring

Mark Goldring CBE, Oxfam’s CEO, made a clear and complete apology.

If you are an organisation full of decent honest people who expect the rest of the world to be measured, decent and honest you have a huge handicap. You will not realise the potential for the crisis to get out of hand and you will not expect the media to go for the jugular. One problem is that sometimes the media does and sometimes it doesn’t. Any doomsayer might be wrong and might damage his or her career by saying ‘this could go ballistic’ when it then doesn’t.

For students of media training lets look at two of the many interviews on this subject.

In this Newsnight interview with Dame Barbara Stocking, the CEO of Oxfam at the time of the Haiti operation, the scandalous bits are all the ‘outraged’ questions from Emily Maitlis. The measured responses from Dame Barbara are barely newsworthy. It was a difficult interview but overall she did well. Personally, I would have liked her to offer a solid apology and be a bit more robust in defense of the decisions Oxfam took. But she was credible and had solid answers. Note this interview was a pre-record. Not a good idea. Dame Barbara should have done it live.

Our second example is a BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview on 12th February – one hour ten minutes in, that is 7.10am. (Remember this disappears after one month.) In this unimpresive interview with Michelle Russell, Head of Investigations at the Charity Commission, it is clear that she had only one simple message and not enough detail to sustain the interview. She appears to be taken aback that Matthew Price, the interviewer, is questioning the competence of the Charity Commissioners themselves. She struggles to cope with what for her was apparently unexpected aggression.

It is the season of sex scandals

It is the season of sex scandals. Post Harvey Weinstein, many things that might in the past have not seemed to be a scandal – potentially are now. I doubt any organisation has no skeletons in the cupboard and I expect most have no idea how they would cope if the spotlight turned on them.

The Orville imagines the rule of law administered by twitter

I cannot finish without recommending a recent episode of The Orville – a brilliant skit on Star Trek running on Fox. In Season 1 Episode 7 Majority Rule, the team visit a parallel planet to Earth, Sargus 4, where the law is administered by popular vote on a planet-wide twitter-like feed. Whilst it is hilarious it is also a bit too close to Earth 2018 for comfort. This is not unrelated to the Oxfam scandal.

 

crisis management

Crisis Management Uber style: keep quiet and cover it up

Crisis management best practice dictates that, if the worst happens, a company should, firstly, be open and honest with its customers, staff and other important parties, such as regulators. Secondly, it must also try to fix the problem as soon as possible. If it doesn’t follow this practice, crisis management case studies generally suggest its reputation could be fatally damaged and its bottom line affected.

crisis management

So it will be interesting to see if the news that Uber has only just fessed up to – that it suffered a data breach over a year ago, affecting around 57-million customers and drivers – is finally a crisis too far for the controversial company.

So far it has survived numerous crises including a sexual harassment scandal, highly public fights with regulators, its own drivers and Apple and, perhaps most shockingly, acquiring the medical records of a rape victim without seemingly affecting the bottom line.

As Alex Hern, noted in The Guardian in June: How low does Uber have to go before we stop using it?

“Uber has entered that rarefied portion of the market, alongside companies like Ryanair and Sports Direct, where unpleasantness is now an assumed part of the brand. Sure, some people like the company. But many don’t, but also know it’s cheaper than the competition.”

As I wrote in a recent blog post on Ryanair’s fumbled handling of its mass plane cancellations a few weeks ago, preparation combined with being open and honest when the crisis hits can go a long way to helping salvage reputation in a bad situation.

The regulators, lawyers and investors in Uber may be the ones who will pass the final judgements but customers in the US affected by the data breach are apparently already lining up class action cases.

But for those companies that do still care about the affect a crisis could have on their reputation, remember the best practice golden rules of:

• Tell it all
• Tell it fast
• Tell it truthfully

Being as transparent as possible won’t make the crisis go away but at least your voice will be heard, you will be able to have some control over the timing and the messages and, therefore, the perception of your company.

Photo credit Pixabay

crisis management

What not to do in a crisis? Follow Ryanair’s example of crisis management!

Crisis management is stressful but not usually difficult. When it comes to what not to do in a crisis, the airline industry has recently been a pretty rich source of case studies (read our view on United Airlines recent problems here). Ryanair’s handling of its recent mass plane cancellations provides yet another example of not following crisis management best practice.

crisis management

If it were any other company, the list of sins could be fatal to its reputation. But Ryanair has never sold itself on customer service (in fact CEO Michael O’Leary has often appeared to enjoy antagonising passengers and his critics) and its management seems to feel that the cheap ticket prices and the destinations it flies to means that most customers will just hold their noses and keep using it no matter what.

crisis management
But for companies that are not so lucky – and do fear the old adage that a reputation can take a lifetime to build and five minutes to lose – there are some simple rules of crisis management best practice to follow to avoid turning a drama into a crisis.

Crisis Management: Preparation, preparation, preparation

Ryanair initially blamed the cancellations on punctuality problems, saying less than 2% of their flights would be affected and that they would still hit their target of 90% of planes arriving on time. (Following the rule that it’s a good idea to use facts to put an issue into perspective.) But with that 2% translating into around 400,000 passengers affected, the storm of complaints on social media, TV, radio and in newspapers was entirely predictable. The company then changed their story and admitted the problem was caused by large numbers of their pilots booking holidays at the same time. Whatever the operational reasons, it seems hard to believe that Ryanair’s managers didn’t know the crisis was coming. And it seems equally unlikely that they suddenly woke up one morning and decided the solution was just to cancel around 50 flights a day and simply not fly large number of their passengers anywhere! The impression of mismanagement continued with a public falling out with the company’s pilots. 

Crisis management: best practice guidelines

So, a quick reminder of some (but by no means all!) crisis management best practice guidelines:

1. Plan ahead and prepare thoroughly – very few crises cannot be foreseen. The timing may not be known but most major issues can be identified and crisis plans developed to tackle them.

2. Agree procedures and make sure everyone in the company who needs to know them is familiar with them BEFORE a crisis hits.

3. Develop media statements and key messages (templates can be developed in advance that can quickly be modified for each situation) and have trained spokespeople ready to go as soon as possible. This preparation also includes identifying how you will have enough people to ensure websites don’t crash, Live Chat questions are answered and phones are answered. If this doesn’t happen, already stressed and angry customers will only be outraged even more.

4. Position your company as taking action to ‘fix’ the problem and make sure you get the tone right: people are more important than profits. While in certain crisis situation the lawyers won’t let companies actually say the word ‘sorry’, spokespeople can use language like, ‘deeply regret’ and ‘very concerned by’ etc.

5. Don’t view the media as the enemy – they can help you get messages across to all your target audiences!

All common-sense steps you would think but amazing how often companies and organisations don’t follow them.

 

If you would like to know how we can help to educate your top team on crisis management or prepare them for crisis interviews, just give us a call. All Media Coach courses are bespoke, we will work with you to make everything we teach directly relevant to your business.

 

Photos used under Wikimedia Creative Commons licence

Twitter and PR

Twitter and PR: Crisis, Trump and Trolls

Twitter and PR are now, in my view, inseparable. Preparing material on Crisis Comms for a major international organisation in the last week, I was struck by how my thoughts turned immediately to social media, and in particular, Twitter.

If you are in the public eye and something goes wrong, or you are criticised by a person or organisation that matters, our advice at The Media Coach is that the first thing you should do is assign someone to monitor Twitter.

Twitter and PR

In a crisis it is now essential that someone monitors Twitter

Twitter and PR: In a crisis it must be monitored

Twitter has many faults but it is searchable and it will pretty instantly give you a range of views that tell you how the public is reacting, and also how other organisations and players are reacting. This picture will start to emerge in a couple of hours or in some cases minutes. 

Equally important, it will be the first port of call for the mainstream media; journalists follow Twitter the way they used to follow the news agency wires. I haven’t done an audit but Twitter seems to be mentioned in almost every news bulletin these days. For journalists there is no need to ring someone up to get a comment on an interesting development, just look on Twitter.

Of course, if you have a good Crisis Comms strategy, you will also be using Twitter and other social media to put your point of view across. But the idea that you would not consider checking Twitter before putting out your first statement is now frankly crazy.

Twitter and PR: Donald Trump continues to astound

And while on the subject, I cannot but mention President-elect Donald Trump. He did once say he would give up his Twitter account when he moved into the White House. We shall see. But meanwhile he continues to use it to rage at, provoke, criticise and some would say bully whoever he happens to be annoyed with today.

The Tweets pouring scorn on North Korea’s nuclear ability are such a departure from all diplomatic norms that they are astonishing, but I find Trump’s Twitter criticism of the US motor industry much more fascinating.

Twitter and PR Donald Trump tweet

According to two stories in Forbes and Fortune magazines (among others), Trump’s ‘industrial policy by Tweet’ has already saved jobs in the US from going over the border to Mexico.  The idea is that ‘naming and shaming’ CEOs in 140 characters or less persuades them to reverse decisions to invest in Mexico and instead keep US jobs that would otherwise be at risk. Well maybe. I am no fan of Trump but I do find this new use of Twitter absolutely fascinating, if a little scary.

Twitter is now part of the mainstream. It is how we tell the world anything we want to get out there, and how we understand what other people are thinking about … well, anything at all. But it is not all good news. Trolling is widespread and for some, highly damaging. Worse, extreme political groups propagating hatred do effective and uncensored advertising on Twitter.

Twitter and PR: It is not all good

There have been a couple of articles in the last week or so showing former aficionados falling out of love with Twitter.

Lindy West – an American feminist writer – wrote a piece for the Guardian entitled “I’ve left Twitter. It is unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.”  And a response in Politico from former Hillary Clinton Foreign Policy wonk Emily Parker explained why she thinks Twitter cannot be fixed because it is simply reflecting human nature with all its flaws.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in Crisis Communications training or bespoke Social Media training for your organisation, please do get in touch. You can call the office on 020 7099 2212 or you can Twitter direct message me @themediacoach.

Twitter and PR

Articles about Twitter and Crisis Comms:

One from MTI Network, a specialist agency; Twitters Growing Importance in Crisis Communications.

Here is an LSE blog with some useful tips for searching twitter: Twitter and crisis communication: an overview of tools for handling social media in real time.

A short introduction, rather simplistic, from the writer of Twitter Marketing for Dummies: How to Use Twitter to Communicate in a Crisis.

A very interesting article written two years ago but still relevant. Using Twitter in Times of Crisis.

crisis communication lesson for david cameron

Cameron’s Crisis Communication Lesson

Many a good crisis communication lesson is never shared, or the various stages are not so public. But the revelation in the Panama Papers that David Cameron’s father had set up an off-shore fund and that until 2010 the Prime Minister himself had owned shares in that fund, has given us a very public case study. And the crisis communication lesson is that you need to get out in front of the story.

Crisis communication lesson

crisis communication lesson for david cameron

David Cameron has had a difficult week after ignoring basic crisis communication lesson

Crisis communications training always emphasises that you need to release all the bad stuff in one hit, as early as possible. Giving misleading statements or closing down enquiries will increase the damage if the whole story comes out later. And that is just what we saw last week. Here is a detailed blow by blow account of Cameron’s horrid week from The Guardian which is claiming the story as theirs.

Crisis communication lesson: refusing to say anything is a mistake

But the basic facts are that on Monday at a regular press briefing reporters asked Cameron’s official spokeswoman if she was aware that his father had set up an off-shore fund called Blairemore. She responded that this was a ‘private matter’. Unsurprisingly, this did not kill the story.

Crisis communication lesson: being economical with the truth is unlikely to work

On Tuesday, with the story all over the front page of the Guardian and running on all networks, Cameron answered a question with a phrase that can only be described as being economical with the truth.

‘I have no shares, no offshore trusts, no offshore funds, nothing like that.’

The furore continued. On Wednesday the prime minister’s office said: ‘There are no offshore trusts or funds from which the Prime Minister, Mrs. Cameron or their children will benefit in future.’ It was not enough. The statements clearly referred to now and in the future but did not mention the past. Journalists could smell blood.

By Thursday Downing Street decided the Prime Minister would have to come clean. In an interview with Robert Peston, Political editor of ITV, Cameron explained that he had owned shares in Blairemore from 1997 until 2010, just before he became Prime Minister. When he sold them, he added, he had paid tax on the profits.

On Saturday, David Cameron felt he needed to publish full details of his tax affairs, and then chancellor George Osborne announced he would do the same. Despite considerable efforts to draw a line under the whole thing, as I write the story continues to hit the headlines and the fall out is now spreading to other members of the Tory party. The damage to Cameron, to Osborne and to the Tories is huge.

Crisis communication lesson: deflect, dismiss, deny is not recommended

The question is, had David Cameron come clean on Monday, or even before, would the damage have been less? Accepted wisdom  is yes, that after an initial splurge of coverage the world would have quickly moved on because there was no ‘sport’ in chasing the details. It is hard to be sure, and the truth is that sometimes companies and people do manage to kill a story by obfuscating. But ‘deflect, dismiss, deny’ is not a strategy recommended in any crisis communications training.

 

Here are 13  minutes of Cameron being gently grilled by Robert Peston, the crucial bit is at 3′ 20″. Overall we think Cameron handles this interview very well but the damage was done.

 

 

Photo: the Mirror via Creative Commons

Torrential Rain

UK floods: Cameron’s press conference was straight out of the crisis communications handbook

David Cameron gave a text book crisis management press conference this afternoon.

Faced  with severe floods in the south west of the UK, ministers and technocrats falling over one another to pin the blame on anyone but themselves, and angry members of the public, he called his first Downing Street press conference for 238 days.

Cameron has learnt his lessons from the phone hacking scandal and has become better at appearing masterful in an emergency.

Here are five things he did which could serve as a checklist to others who might need to show leadership in a crisis.

david cameron press conference

David Cameron held emergency press conference on the floods

1. Cancel any plans (i.e. a forthcoming trip to the Middle East in Cameron’s case) to show actions speak louder than words and that nothing is more important than fighting the floods.

2. Say: ‘Nothing is more important than fighting the floods’ during the press conference (in case people didn’t get that you were taking it seriously).

3. Start the press conference with what you can say: in this case with the numbers of homes that have been flooded and then onto what’s being done to tackle the problem. So for example, we learned that by the end of Tuesday, 1,600 service men and women will have been deployed around the country with many more on call. This kind of approach is valuable because it feeds the media and social media voids, as well as making the speaker look and sound in control. It also allows you to do a lot of talking up front which puts you on the offensive rather than defensive with the journalists.

flood image torrential rain4. Keep your soundbites clear and simple. To shamelessly borrow from Tony Blair: ‘Now is not the time for soundbites.’ So from Cameron we got: ‘Things may well get worse before they get better’ and ‘Money is no object’.

5.  Refuse to be drawn on the politics (internal or external). Cameron did not commit to questions about squabbling ministers or questions about whether climate change was the cause of the flooding. Instead he focused on what the Government was doing to manage the crisis and that it was evident the extreme weather was a problem.

I expect the journalists will be all over the press conference looking for signs of inconsistency or sensationalism. But from a media trainer’s perspective this was disciplined, clear and a job well done.