The enquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy is underway and we have heard heart-breaking testimonies from some of the survivors. Once the enquiry is complete and its findings and recommendations are enacted it is to be profoundly hoped that nothing like this ever happens again.
The fire broke out in a flat on the fourth floor, was put out, so they thought, by the fire service, but it had spread from the windows and up through the external cladding. The speed of the blaze, witnessed live on television, meant that it reached the 10th floor in just 15 minutes.
Grenfell will likely be the biggest UK crisis management case study in our life-time. An impressive account and analysis of the incident recently surfaced in an unlikely forum – The London Review of Books. The writer, Andrew O’Hagan, spent a year on-site documenting and researching the incident and its aftermath in huge detail. His article debunks some of the received wisdom connected to Grenfell and no more so than the public’s perception of Kensington and Chelsea Council.
As O’Hagan says: ‘At daybreak on 14th June 2017 a large, malodorous cloud hung over West London. You could see it for miles, acrid and acrimonious, the whole country waking up with a sense of disorder. And people required an answer. So we wiped our eyes and blamed the council.’
The word that emerges continuously from members of the council, social workers, pressure groups and in fact just about every stakeholder is ‘narrative’. Essentially from the word go, the narrative was set: The council was to blame, it was full of rich people with double-barrelled names who cared nothing for the poorer residents before the fire and did little to help them afterwards. The pressure groups connected to the tragedy said so, celebrities said so, the newspapers said so. Almost over-night it became the received wisdom. The council were to blame, and they must take the rap.
Now there is no doubt the council made mistakes and their failings will be uncovered by the enquiry and they will be held to account. Fire safety standards were not maintained at the tower, and the council’s regulatory and assessment system was at best questionable. But O’Hagan found during his investigations that to say the council did little to help the residents after the event is plainly not true.
The council immediately mobilised 340 staff, some of them coming from Hammersmith, Fulham and Westminster. According to action logs, they worked on the case from the morning of the fire and the number of workers grew as the days passed. Staff came from Housing Services, Adult Social Care, Finance, Building Control, Children’s Services, Environmental Health, Transport and Highways, and Emergency Planning. All these people working tirelessly to help the residents and those caught up in the tragedy, but their message never penetrated. Why?
A lady from Child Services told O’Hagan that: ‘As often as possible we had to sit down and cross-check to see that every family had a key worker. But families would then say to journalists and politicians, “Oh no, I’ve not seen anyone from the council,” because they didn’t associate the person sat next to them in the room with people from the council’.
From the outset Kensington And Chelsea made a mistake by not having their officers and staff wear council branded tabards so the public knew who they were and could see the work they were doing. Also, they never established a lead over all the voluntary groups active from the morning of the fire. In a crisis such as Grenfell, showing contrition and expressing sympathy is an essential human reaction, so perhaps their worst mistake was not looking sufficiently remorseful in front of the cameras. Quickly, the initiative slipped from their hands.
In a crisis, played out across lightning fast social media, an organisation needs to shout to be heard, otherwise it’s voice is drowned out. The world of Instagram and WhatsApp can be brutal to those who don’t move quickly. Traditionally, Kensington and Chelsea is a low-profile council and at the time of the incident only had a comms team of eight people, some of them part time.
A crisis, such as this, is no time for PR, but with the whole world wanting information, your ability to help the media is crucial. In a major incident, councils are subordinate to the police, but with Kensington And Chelsea being seen as uncaring it was essential for their comms team to fight that narrative and set out exactly what they were doing to help. Instead as O’Hagan says: ‘The council might have made more effort to be seen doing what it did. Instead, staff members just did it. While the hours ticked by and reporters went with the happy conviction that the council was entirely absent.’
The first full day after the fire a survivor was being interviewed by the media, sitting beside one of the council social workers who had been with her since she escaped.
The reporter asked about the council’s role. “The council don’t care,” the woman said. They’re not doing anything.”
At the end of the interview the social worker turned and looked at her. “Why did you say that?” she asked. “I’ve been with you since the beginning.”
“Oh,” the woman said. “But you’re not from the council, are you?”
As Kensington and Chelsea found out to its cost, if the public isn’t aware that you’re responding to a problem then effectively you’re not.