Maintaining an impeccable reputation is nearly impossible in the business setting, especially for an organization that works on a global scale. The act of being exposed for a certain misstep representing the violation of an ethical code has become quite common for a range of organizations in the present-day global economy, which has necessitated greater transparency and stronger compliance with relevant ethical standards (Coombs, 1995). The requirement to align with the principal ethical code is especially stringent when applied to non-profit organizations. Among some of the more recent scandals in the global business industry, one should mention the case of Save the Children UK. Due to the initially poor choice of the Minimization approach and the Accuser Attack strategy according to Benoit’s Theory, Save the Children UK failed to retain credibility required for the public’s forgiveness, which made the further choice of the Compensation approach seem as a manipulative ploy for regaining public sympathy.
With the rise in the role of accountability and corporate social responsibility in the global business context, organizations that have failed to deliver the expected results and have undermined the trust of their key stakeholders have rightfully received repercussions for the mismanagement of certain aspects of organizational management. In the light of the described change, Save the Children UK’s ethical failure appears to be all the more egregious. Delving into the background of the case, one should note that Save the Children UK used to be known for its legitimacy and reputability as a body that sought to address the issue of child abuse (“Save the Children accepts charity commission report and apologizes,” 2018). Founded in 1919 by Eglantyne Jebb and Dorothy Buxton, the organization has been prioritizing the promotion of the principles established in the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child (“Save the Children accepts charity commission report and apologizes,” 2018). However, over the past decade, Save the Children UK has found itself under fire due to the multiple claims concerning the instances of sexual misconduct and harassment perpetrated by Brendan Cox and Justin Forsyth (“Save the Children accepts charity commission report and apologizes,” 2018). The specified scandals made it evident that Save the Children UK needed to reevaluate its corporate ethics and the extent of safety that it offered to its employees.
However, when being held accountable for the actions of its members, Save the Children UK first denied the allegations, only to take its words back and acknowledge the problem by forcing the perpetrators to resign. Nevertheless, the public image of Save the Children UK has been tarnished. This paper will seek to study the approach that Save the Children UK’s chairman, Sir Alan Parker, undertook to save the organization’s reputation, and the reasons for it to have backfired so spectacularly. For this purpose, Benoit’s Image Restoration Theory will be applied as the lens through which parker’s choices will be examined (Coombs, 1995). Specifically, the distinctive characteristics of the linguistic approach that Parker integrated into his strategy for damage control will be assessed from the tenets of Benoit’s theoretical framework. It is theorized that the wrong initial choice and the exceptionally poorly thought-out extension of the strategy in question has served as the reason for the public to consider the eventual compensation offered by Parker as insufficient.
In order to investigate the case of Save the Children UK, a theoretical framework explaining the changes in the perception of a public image will be utilized. Specifically, Benoit’s Image Restoration Theory will help shed light on the transformations that the public opinion of Save the Children UK has undergone. By providing an extensive yet concise account of the major avenues that one can take in order to manage a reputation-related crisis, the theory by Benoit will offer a perspective of the general audience on the events that transpired prior to Save the Children UK’s downfall.
The theory in question, known as Benoit’s Image Restoration Theory, examines the variety of avenues that can be taken in order to address damaged reputation. Focusing on the issue of public relations and the effects that each strategy produces, the theory offered by Benoit provides an insight into the reasons for each approach to function in a specific setting. The theory suggests that reputation in the public context is defined and controlled by the extent of media monitoring and the ability of an organization to mobilize the audience’s opinions of it to strengthen the corporate image (Benoit, 2013). In other words, Benoit (2013) posits that the stronger a company’s grip on its representation in the media is, the higher its chances to restore its reputation and public image are (Benoit, 2013). Therefore, the theoretical framework in question allows considering the extraneous variables that shape the public opinion of an organization while indicating the tools that can be used to influence it.
Based on the specified definition of a company’s public image, Benoit distilled several strategies that companies typically use when attempting at improving its reputation and executing damage control in public media. Among the key approaches, Benoit mentions seven primary ones. Reducing the extent of offensiveness of a specific occurrence can be considered the most common tool in addressing a public controversy that has tarnished an organization’s reputation.
Another approach that Benoit’s theory offers is bolstering public sympathy toward an organization. While the attempt at appealing to the public’s emotions is quite effective, the proposed method implies a threat to eliciting suspicion in insincerity in the target population. The attempt at the minimization of the negative effects that a company’s breach of ethics may have had on the global community is another common tactic to which forms resort when facing public reproach. The differentiation of the company’s actions, in turn, suggests that an organization draws a line between the actions of the accused and others. The described approach allows pinning the blame on a particular group of people, which helps a company differentiate itself from them, therefore, maintaining the reputation of a morally superior party in the discourse. The transcendence approach as a part of Benoit’s theoretical framework explains the actions of organizations that attempt at saving their reputation by providing a context for their actions. While the specified approach allows introducing extenuating circumstances for the guilty party, it still fails to restore a company’s image completely.
Another framework that a firm could use to manage its reputation according to Benoit is represented by the technique known as attacking the accuser. Implying the use of a rather unethical approach in managing a reputation-related problem, the described tactic can be considered rather risky. Indeed, in the scenario where a company’s actions are disclosed to the general audience and become open for discussion, the firm is likely to face significant reproach, with most people condemning its actions as highly unethical (Benoit, 2013). Therefore, while serving its goal of distracting the public, the attack accuser technique should be seen as highly questionable.
Finally, the compensation technique that Benoit’s theoretical framework distills as another approach to addressing reputation issues, represents the most honest and rewarding framework for handling ethical failures. Implying that a company should acknowledge its mistakes, demonstrate remorse, and make steps to amending the situation, the compensation technique often turns out to be exceptionally challenging for a company that fears of losing its competitiveness.
Overall, Benoit’s perspective on the management of reputation-related issues in the corporate context implies that companies typically resort to the strategies that can be grouped into five distinctive categories. These are the denial of any responsibility, the attempt at escaping it, the endeavor to minimize the extent of the offence, the introduction of the corrective action, and the mortification approach. Remarkably, the strategies offered by Benoit do not need to be considered individually; quite the contrary, when managing a company’s public image, a combination of several approaches can be used to mitigate different types of threats observed in the target setting (Coombs, 2007). Therefore, the approach designed by Benoit provides an all-encompassing framework within which every possible response that an organization offers when addressing aa public image crisis can be accommodated.
Benoit’s approach has multiple positive aspects, the use of a nuanced analysis of corporate image repair strategies being the key one. The all-encompassing vision with which Benoit approaches the issue of corporate reputation loss deserves viewing his theoretical framework as legitimate and worthy of being used for a comprehensive assessment of a firm’s public relations strategy. However, Benoit’s theory also incorporates several weaknesses. Namely, Benoit focuses on the shaping of public reputation on social media without incorporation the cultural context into it. As a result, the role of media is seen as the overpowering force that trumps other influences in people developing their attitudes toward a company.
Nevertheless, the framework that Benoit established as the approach toward analyzing the image repair approaches used by companies in the global setting is impressively accurate. Allowing for a precise forecasting of the perception of a specific image repair approach in the target environment, Benoit’s tool helps to understand and assess the behaviors observed in the context of an event that damages an organization’s reputation. Moreover, Benoit’s approach allows analyzing the mistakes made when handling an ethical issue and introduce improvements to the current PR approach.
When approaching the conundrum that the Save the Children UK controversy represents, one must admit that the company made a gigantic error at the very start by miscommunicating its stance and positioning itself as uncaring, thus, misaligning it curse of actions with the principal values on which it claimed to be based. In hindsight, what made Save the Children UK fail so miserably and irreparably in the eyes of the general audiences was Parker’s failure to conduct thorough media monitoring in order to predict the responses that his selected statement was about to cause. Apart from being ethically insensitive in itself and portraying the organization as defying the foundational ethical standards to which it, as a charity, had to adhere, the strategy that Parker selected misaligned with the general sociocultural trends observed within the target setting at the time.
Delving into the linguistic constituents of the response produced by Save the Children UK, one will notice a clear lack of sensitivity and remorse, which is strongly emphasized by Parker’s choice of words. Specifically, the statement that Save the Children UK produced at first included the approach that could be defined using Benoit’s theory as the “Accuser Attach” method given the company’s ardent attempts at minimizing the credibility of the complaints and the employees that produced it. Indeed, considering the message that Save the Children UK sent from a linguistic perspective, the efforts to shift the blame or, at the very least, undermine the reputation of those that dared to question Save the Children UK’s intentions was evident (Benoit, 2013). Specifically, the report pointed out that “Once the allegations became public, the charity, in an approach partly engineered by Parker, sent “sternly worded letters” with phrases like “seriously defamatory” to media outlets covering the scandal” (Weidlich, 2018, para. 10). The use of the words such as “seriously defamatory” toward the media that reported the controversy proved not only Save the Children UK’s inability to manage its reputation publicly, but also showed that the organization had an unimaginably poor idea of the effects that mass media has on shaping organizations’ public images. Applying Benoit’s framework, will show that Save the Children UK was incapable of connecting the functions of social media, particularly, in regard to framing information and representing it to target audiences, and the development of a positive response in the general population.
Admittedly, compared to the report that Save the Children UK initially introduced to the target audience, the updated version offers significantly large extent of sensitivity and empathy. Although the original rejection of the allegations targeted at Save the Children UK cannot presently be found online, the existing summarizes thereof indicate that it had significant tone issues and represented a major linguistic failure as well. Specifically, the choice of wording can be described as highly inappropriate and showing no remorse or sympathy toward victims. Although currently, the response issued by Save the Children UK initially is publicly unavailable, some traces of its unapologetic and dismissive nature have been preserved. For instance, Weidlich (2018) refers to the Save the Children UK mentioning that some of the complaints were represented by the “sternly worded letters,” which, given the ethical complexity of the circumstances and the doubtless fault of the organization, were a major failure in regard to the management of the company’s public relations (Weidlich, 2018, para. 7).
Furthermore, the following response exacerbated the situation due to Parker’s inability to mobilize public opinions and strengthen the corporate image.
However, what makes the choice of wording that the organization made when publishing the report is the absence of any indications of whom the organization defines as responsible for the specified occurrence. For example, the abundance of the Passive Voice constructions allows the authors of the report to avoid naming the guilty party directly: “The Commission has said the complaints against Justin Forsyth should have been reported to Save the Children UK’s full board when they arose” (“Save the Children accepts charity commission report and apologizes,” 2018, para. 15). The described attempts at linguistic ambiguity have contributed significantly to shaping the company’s public perception a highly negative.
The report that followed the disastrous first attempt of Save the Children UK to use the Differentiation technique and the Attack Accuser approach also features quite a number of instances of problematic word choices. For example, the absence of any wording indicating empathy to the victims signals the lack of remorse and the attempt at gaining the public’s sympathy without actually making any amends (Benoit, 2013). The company’s attempt at representing the firing of the perpetrator as the effort to utilize the Compensation technique, whereas, in actuality, Save the Children UK utilized the Minimization and Bolstering approach, is particularly evident in the following lines:
Justin Forsyth was appointed CEO in 2010. He was accused of inappropriate conduct towards a member of staff in 2012 and apologized. In early 2015, two other women complained that he had made inappropriate comments. These complaints also prompted apologies. (“Save the Children accepts charity commission report and apologizes,” 2018, para. 15)
As seen in the excerpt provided above, Save the Children UK establishes that it has done the bare minimum to meet the set ethical standards, yet the wording suggests that Save the Children UK considers the incident settled. Remarkably, the report does not mention any attempts at compensating the suffering that the victims experienced as a result of the assaults, which weakens the apology significantly. Moreover, delving into the linguistic aspects of the message issued by Save the Children UK, one will note the dryness and scarcity of the language and expressions used by Save the Children UK. For instance, when mentioning its apology, Save the Children UK specified that it “apologizes” without adding any qualifier to its apology (“Save the Children accepts charity commission report and apologizes,” 2018, para. 15). Specifically, it would be expected for an organization making a violation of ethical principles of this scale to represent its intent as stating that it apologizes profusely or expresses the deepest regret about the incidents of sexual assault. However, the selected wording, namely, the matter-of-fact statement of the assaults and the refusal to be expressively empathetic toward the victims of the abuser can be seen as particularly egregious aspects of the statement.
Therefore, the attempt at making the minimum effort to regain its reputation has made Save the Children UK’s strategy backfire colossally. Even though the second statement that Save the Children made in a desperate attempt at minimizing the damage done to its reputation appeared to be quite fake in its efforts to seem ethical. Therefore, based on Benoit’s Theory of Image Restoration, Save the Children UK should not have sought to minimize the offensiveness of the event by introducing the techniques of differentiation and especially the strategy of attacking the accuser. instead, the company should have avoided an initially defensive stance and, instead, acknowledged its ethical failure. Although the specified decision would not have elicited immediate forgiveness in the target audience, it would have positioned Save the Children UK as an organization that seeks to do the bare minimum by acknowledging the humanity of the victims and offering them compensation. Hade Save the Children UK adopted the Compensation approach from the start, the accusations of failing to recognize and manage the cases of sexual misconduct would not have affected the company in its entirety and would have been directed at the perpetrators instead.
When considering the factors that drove Save the Children UK to choose the specified approach despite the fact that it was evidently doomed to fail, one should acknowledge Save the Children UK’s previous underestimation of the role of mass media in shaping a company’s public image. Specifically, Save the Children UK appears to have been doing a rather poor job at monitoring the media and the responses that it received. As a result, Save the Children UK could not forecast the intensity of the negative feedback that its initial non-apology received.
Although the following report that Save the Children UK published could be seen as an improvement compared to the previous denial of any responsibility, its wording aggravated the situation, taking it to the Differentiation and Minimization areas as per Benoit’s theory. Namely, the fact that Save the Children UK continuously avoided naming itself and referring to its failure directly indicated that the organization was not intending to make amends. The specified tactic could be considered an example of Differentiation as it is described in Benoit’s theoretical framework. Namely, the attempt at disseminating the audience’s attention so that it would not center the accused but, instead, could capture the nebulous others that contributed to the problem can be observed. While writing the report on behalf of the Commission and, therefore, mentioning Save the Children UK in the third person is reasonable, placing the main actors of the described crime deliberately in the shadow is not. The observed linguistic gymnastics has reduced Save the Children’ UK’s ethical credibility, thus, making the organization seem even more unethical in its choice of public relations strategy and the attempt at communicating its goals. Coombs (1995) explains that the inability of parse the expected reaction of the public is likely to lead to an immediate failure: ‘Identifying the crisis type enables an initial assessment of the amount of crisis responsibility that publics will attribute to a crisis situation” (p. 169). Therefore, being unable to embrace the intensity of the negative response, Save the Children UK issued the statement without taking account of the effect that it would produce.
Had Save the Children UK paid more attention to the increasing role of mass media in shaping a company’s reputation, it would have noticed that the importance of social networks as the sources of public opinions about organizations and the related events had skyrocketed by the time that Save the Children UK was facing the described crisis (Coombs, 2007). Therefore, the inability to embrace changes in social interaction and the development of the public opinion, save the Children UK turned out to be incapable of manipulating its public image.
Therefore, analyzing the problem at hand form linguistic and communication-based perspectives, one will realize that the initial problem concerned primarily the inconsistency between the announced values of the organization and the route that it took when addressing the ethical concern. Specifically, the issue that Save the Children UK has encountered can be defined as a poor level of the “credibility of the corrective action proposed,” as Benoit et al. (2013, p. 388) put it eloquently. Indeed, while the second response that still prompted a negative reply offered a corrective action to a certain extent by willfully acknowledging the fact of the sexual misconduct and announcing that the perpetrator had been fired, Save the Children UK still failed to establish the credibility of the proposed corrective action. Namely, while representing the required minimum, making the company’s chairman quit his job did not entail direct compensation for the victims.
In hindsight, Save the Children UK should not have resorted to accusing the public of an attempt at tarnishing its reputation. Instead, Save the Children UK should have acknowledged the problem immediately, conducted investigation, and fired the offenders. However, in an effort to cover its blunders, the company ultimately exposed its complete lack of ethics and nuance in its understanding of tits customers’ needs. Moreover, Save the Children UK has shown the absence of remorse when addressing the instance of abuse occurring within its organizational setting. The fact that the company never committed to acknowledging the gravity of its mistake and issued a rather passionless, matter-of-fact statement concerning the future changes within the organization added to the overall negative impression. As a result, the company witnessed a major backlash that resulted in further complications with the management of its PR.
By incorporating the Minimization framework that followed the preceding Accuser Attack tool that Save the Children UK chose for damage control, the organization experienced significant challenges in managing its reputation. Initially having been undermined by the poor choice of the ideas that Save the Children UK chose to communicate to its stakeholders, the company exacerbated the negative impression that it produced by unintentionally representing its Compensation technique as a minor concession. Namely, the wording that Save the Children UK’s leaders chose at the time to convey the selected ideas represented a misguided and poorly concealed effort to downplay the harm that Save the Children UK had caused its victims.
Exacerbated by the extremely poor and insincere attempt at apology that Save the Children UK issued later, the described strategy of managing public relations indicated a complete misunderstanding of how media, particularly, its social variety, mobilizes audiences’ opinions and shapes the public image of an organization. As a result, the attempts at alleviating the tremendously negative effect of Save the Children UK’s failure to act promptly and mitigate abuse, as well as its further incredibly insensitive and abusive response followed by the ridiculously false apology made the company’s reputation plummet. The observed case represents an example of failing to monitor the media, particularly, social one, so that the response to the allegations could be measured, respectful, and eliciting sympathy in the target audience. Namely, the organization did not establish the connection between the functions of social media and the impact that the media in question tends to produce on the general public.
In regard to addressing the situation in which Save the Children UK has found itself, one should advise that the organization should recognize its fault immediately and introduce a plan according to which it will compensate for its mismanagement of the assaults. Particularly, compensations to the victims along with the reconsideration and revisiting the current Code of Ethics will have to be implemented. More importantly, the specified steps must be taken in the public context, specifically, by using social media to make the organizational changes that Save the Children UK is going to make. Specifically, Benoit’s concept of the Compensation strategy as the intention of making amends must be integrated into Save the Children UK’s further course of action. By recognizing the role that social media plays in people’s perception of companies’ reputations, Save the Children UK will be able to improve its current public image and address the problem of its perception among the target audiences.
Benoit, W. L. (2013) ‘Image repair theory and corporate reputation’, in The handbook of communication and corporate reputation, pp. 213-212.. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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Save the Children accepts charity commission report and apologizes (2018) Web.
Weidlich, T. (2018). ‘Save the children scandal raises issues for sex-harassment crises.’ PRCG.