Oxfam sets out to limit brand damage from Haiti scandal

Oxfam tells its supporters ‘we are so sorry’ and declares ‘we are listening’ as it pledges to win back the public’s trust.

Oxfam has begun a push to limit and repair brand damage sustained in the wake of allegations about sexual misconduct by its staff in Haiti eight years ago.

The charity used a full-page advert in national newspapers on Saturday (17 February) to apologise to its supporters for the current scandal, in which The Times exposed allegations that a number of Oxfam employees hired sex workers in Haiti while helping the country recover from the 2010 earthquake.

The ad took the form of a letter with the headline “We are so sorry”, reassuring supporters and volunteers that “we are listening”. It read: “More than anything, we are sorry to the people of Haiti and other places where conduct of Oxfam staff has been reprehensible.”

The letter, signed by chair of trustees Caroline Thomson and chief executive Mark Goldring, featured in national newspapers including the Guardian and The Times, the newspaper which exposed the scandal, in a reactive marketing move to gain back trust.

Vanessa Clifford, CEO of Newsworks, the marketing body for national newspapers, says: “In times of crisis, brands often turn to newspapers to speak directly to readers in a newsworthy, trusted and engaged environment – in the case of Oxfam’s ad, it’s no coincidence that it appears in the title where the news story originally broke.

“Putting a statement like this in print holds gravitas and garners attention, becoming a new story in itself, while also allowing the brand to apologise, reassure and lay-out its plans for change via a long-copy approach.”

Oxfam denies claims that it covered up a report detailing the sexual misconduct, but The Charity Commission has launched an inquiry into whether Oxfam disclosed enough details about the allegations during its 2011 report into the incident. In its letter on Saturday, the charity admitted it should have been “more explicit” about its report into allegations.

However Goldring also used an interview with the Guardian on the same day to complain that comments issued by Oxfam in response to the scandal had been “manipulated” and its reputation unfairly “savaged”.

It is unclear so far whether the scandal has significantly damaged the charity’s brand metrics. However, actress Minnie Driver has quit as Oxfam ambassador and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and Marks & Spencer are reviewing their association with the charity.

It has significantly lost out on funding in the wake of the news. More than 1,200 people cancelled direct debits the weekend before last, when the story broke, and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said the charity would receive no new funding from the UK’s foreign aid budget until it could prove it met the ‘high standards’ she expected. Oxfam received over £30m funding last year.

The letter on Saturday also stated that Oxfam is continuing to help those in need and pledged to win back the supporters trust. It read: “The scandal that has hit Oxfam in the past week has been shocking, but we are determined that it must not stop the world’s poorest people getting the help they need.”

It added: “We hope that we will be able to earn back the trust that has been lost. Once again, we are so sorry to all of you.”

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