When a crisis hits an organisation why do the words they use matter so much? Surely it is what the organisation does that matters more? It is true the actions are the heart of the response. But for most people watching on from outside they have to rely on what is said to be an indication of what is happening. For me that is why we need to be focused on every word that we say in the response to a crisis.
The whole issue has been brought to the forefront of my mind today as I saw the headlines about Oxfam and that an investigation is now underway into allegations of sexual exploitation, bullying and mismanagement. Only those working in Oxfam and those involved in the inquiry will have an understanding of what the situation is, the truth of what happened and how it happened. For everyone else there is only one way of understanding what has happened and that is through the media commentary and the statements from the organisation at the centre of the crisis in this case Oxfam.
Media reported the statement from Oxfam as: “We can confirm we have suspended two members of Oxfam staff in the DRC as part of an ongoing external investigation, which we set up last November, into allegations of abuses of power, including bullying and sexual misconduct. We are acutely aware of our duty to survivors, including in supporting them to speak out safely. We are working hard to conclude the investigation fairly, safely and effectively.”
Those are the words that people will have to use to gather an understanding of the situation. For me, words matter a lot and in the early stages of a crisis they are all people have. There are a number of issues with what has been said. If you consider it in its entirity it appears both dismissive and an attempt to show they were doing the right thing as in ‘we set up’ and ‘we are acutely aware’. It lacks some humility and recognising the concerns that people will have again after what happened in 2018.
I also am concerned about the use of the phrase ‘acutely aware of our duty to survivors’. The people affected by this matter the most. It is not a duty to support them but the right thing to do. And I remain at a loss to understand why ‘acutely’ was used as it leaves a sense of them saying ‘we know what we are doing and need no reminders about this’. I have many questions about how those affected are being supported. The phrase ‘we are working hard’ could be seen as reassurance that a lot is being done, but may lead to questions about why it has taken from November to April and still there is no conclusion.
This situation is going to raise concerns among many and only at the conclusion of the investigation can we have better knowledge of what has happened. Until then we are left with just the words.
As communicators we should ask questions about an organisation’s response and challenge if we need to. The words cannot make up for a poor response and I always say you can’t communicate your way out of a poor response to a situation. However, taking care about the words that are used is critical to effective crisis communication.