Reputational crisis following Grenfell threatens to overwhelm Kensington council as leader resigns
The Grenfell Tower fire is a national tragedy which has claimed at least 80 lives and displaced hundreds of people from their homes but, three weeks on, it is also showing signs of destroying the reputation of Kensington and Chelsea Council, with an overwhelming majority of the public telling an exclusive survey it has not handled the response well.
A series of missteps; from the decision last Thursday to exclude the public and media from a crucial council meeting and disastrous and legalistic media interviews with the council’s former political leader Nicholas Paget-Brown, who resigned on Friday, now threatens to overwhelm the council’s reputation altogether.
Amid the early calls for manslaughter charges to be brought against all of those responsible for the tragedy, there are also demands to sack the entire council’s cabinet and bring in state-appointed commissioners to run the local authority.
The idea has so far been resisted by the Government, but today it ordered a taskforce to take over the housing department, as well as other council operations.
The survey shows that the vast majority of the public think the council has not handled the response to the tragedy well and that there is also widespread support for appointing interim commissioners to run the local authority.
On Thursday last week, the council’s cabinet attempted to exclude the media and public from a council meeting to discuss the aftermath of Grenfell, but a High Court judge ruled that the council must allow journalists to report on proceedings.
But the meeting quickly broke down, with opposition councillors calling for the cabinet’s resignation, before Paget-Brown closed the meeting altogether, telling those present that it could not have an "open discussion" with the media reporting councillor’s comments.
The decision to call off the meeting, which was condemned by Downing Street, only served to increase the level of fury directed at the council, and it has attracted criticism from public sector comms professionals.
Mandy Pearse (above), Chair of the CIPR Local Public Services group said: "Public bodies need to think very carefully before excluding the media and affected people from official meetings. The ability to scrutinise decisions is a cornerstone of our democracy. Good crisis communications is based on openness, transparency and accountability."
A senior local government comms professional also told PRWeek the decision to exclude the media and public from the meeting was typical of the legalistic approach favoured by the council so far.
They added: "Openness and the ability to listen are the first rules of communication. This debate has to be in the open, regardless of how difficult the message is or how disruptive it may be. Closing the doors is only exacerbating the disconnect between the community and council."
The decision to close the meeting even attracted criticism from the former head of news at the Metropolitan Police, who tweeted:
Are Kens and Chelsea Council getting crisis comms advice ? Banning media and the public from tonight's public meet is madness #grenfell 1/2
Crisis comms specialist Emily Rogers (above), PR director at Rampart, said the council had been behaving "like an overfed rabbit in the headlights" from the moment the disaster began to unfold and that Thursday’s decision to call off the meeting had only served to dent its reputation further.
She said: "Through not acting with the appropriate speed, humanity or efficacy once the scale of the tragedy became apparent, they succeeded in killing any shred of trust the general public had in them… attempting to exclude the media and the public was bad enough but, given that media attended, Paget-Brown's public cancellation of the meeting was poorly handled, and gave the distinct message that the council had dark secrets."
On Friday, less than 24 hours after the cancelled meeting, Paget-Brown resigned as leader of the council, following in the wake of its chief executive, who was forced to resign last month.
In his resignation statement, Paget-Brown said he accepted his share of the blame for the "perceived failings" of the council since the tragedy and cited his willingness to rely on legal advice to cancel Thursday’s meeting as a reason for his departure.
But Robert Taylor (above), a media trainer, said it was high time that comms professionals stood up to lawyers in situations such as these.
Where were his PR people? Why didn’t they insist he considered their advice too?.
Robert Taylor, media trainer
He said: "He resigned, citing as a key mistake his decision to follow legal advice rather than simply doing the right thing – morally. Where were his PR people? Why didn’t they insist he considered their advice too? Why does legal advice always trump everything else? Why didn’t they advise against his use of the term "perceived failings" in his resignation statement, a legalism designed to make him seem a victim?"
Tory councillor Elizabeth Campbell has since been appointed de-facto leader of the council and her first act was to apologise for the council’s response so far.
She said: "The first thing I want to do is I want to apologise. This is our community and we have failed it when people needed us the most. So, no buts, no ifs, no excuses. I am truly sorry."
However, some council comms chiefs have taken a more sympathetic view of the perceived failings of Kensington Council, such as Polly Cziok (above), head of comms at Hackney Council, who said Grenfell should make local authority comms professionals consider their own crisis comms preparedness.
It is very easy to criticise RBKC for their comms response, and many have rightly done so. But as councils we each need to focus on how prepared we are.
Polly Cziok, head of comms at Hackney Council
She said: "It is very easy to criticise RBKC for their comms response, and many have rightly done so. But as councils we each need to focus on how prepared we are…and ensuring that all our staff are properly trained in crisis communications. No one can afford to be complacent and, as a sector, we need to review our overall readiness in the wake of recent events."
But if the comms response from the council has fallen far short of expectations, how should it have dealt with the aftermath of Grenfell?
If Paget-Brown was so incapable of showing human emotion in front of the press, another spokesperson should have been drafted in immediately.
Emily Rogers, PR director at Rampart
Rogers said there are three steps the council could – and should – have taken, including publically surrendering interim control to commissioners.
She added: "It should have acted immediately and substantively to provide humanitarian support to the victims and their families. These images would have been broadcast to the concerned public and shown them to be on the ground, providing tangible support to those who needed it most. It should also have given the media a heartfelt, empathetic statement, first thing in the morning. If Paget-Brown was so incapable of showing human emotion in front of the press, another spokesperson should have been drafted in immediately."
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