Placing values at the heart of crisis management

January 25, 2019 by Jenny Payne

Crisis management

An independent commission’s interim report into Oxfam’s operations following the Haiti scandal is a timely reminder of how crises stemming from cultural and behavioural issues can present significant reputation management challenges.

The allegations against Oxfam were particularly shocking because they struck right at the heart of what the charity stood for. According to the commission, “…(its) values are printed on wall posters but not always understood or upheld in action.” Having values is one thing, living them is another. Failing to uphold standards companies hang their reputation on can cause significant damage, as Oxfam has found out the hard way.


Crisis leadership crucial for recovery

Crises that have ethical or behavioural failings as their root cause are significantly more challenging to recover from. It was clear as the situation unfolded that Oxfam’s culture was fundamentally broken. Fixing an issue so endemic is not a quick or easy task, but inward reflection is necessary for crisis recovery.

Oxfam’s executive team has shown elements of good crisis leadership during the aftermath of the scandal. Critically, they’ve taken accountability and ownership and have put in place a series of measurable actions to address what caused the problems in the first place. However, the road ahead of them is a long one.

The commission recommends that Oxfam’s leadership looks at a number of key areas to help transform the charity’s culture and accountability, including empowering staff to act when they see misconduct and creating space for staff to challenge poor behaviour. All companies would do well to abide by these principles. Embracing an open culture where employees feel safe to identify problems is an important, and often overlooked, part of crisis management.  Organisations that are most successful at crisis and reputation management accept that they’re not immune from crises and foster an environment where employees at all levels feel comfortable to speak out when they spot risks.

Reflecting ethical issues in crisis plans

The Oxfam scandal is just one of a growing number of crises that have been caused by a negative corporate culture. We predict that many of 2019’s most damaging crises will continue to have behavioural and ethical problems at the centre. While it may be difficult to think that your organisation, or individuals within it, may not be living up to company values, updating reputational risk assessments to include these issues is essential to ensure good reputation management.

Beyond recognising behavioural risks, it’s business critical for organisations to ensure they can respond to them effectively through regular crisis rehearsing and crisis media training.

Effecting real change for long-term reputation management

Time will tell whether Oxfam is taking real action to bring about organisational change. An effective crisis management response recognises that actions speak louder than words. Oxfam has made a lot of promises to show it’s trying to change for the better but should they not deliver, the reputational damage may well be irreparable.



Jenny Payne


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