Some basic lessons in Crisis Communications were not followed here.
We have three simple rules for Crisis Communications:
- Act promptly. Interestingly, Kensington and Chelsea Council did act promptly, of sorts, in that a helpline number was there on Breakfast TV a few hours after the building caught fire. The problem was that no one from the Council was visible in the sense of being seen to be there, giving media interviews. So, in real terms they were not seen to be acting promptly which always causes reputational damage. This brings us to:
- Front up – where appropriate. Well, no one from the Council fronted up for several days and that was the Deputy Leader whom I saw on Good Morning Britain being given a hard time by Susannah Reid (in the absence of Piers Morgan) was excruciating to watch. Of course we know what happened next with the (former) Leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown resigning (or being forced to resign) by DCLG Minister Sajid Javed. He may well have still had to resign, but he should have at least tried to “front up” – preferably from day one.
- Don’t spin. Stick to the facts. Interestingly, the facts and controversy around the cladding issue did not emerge on Day 1, the best day to front up and put Crisis Communications into practice. It only came up later and is now the single most dominant issue along with the threat of prosecutions for Corporate Manslaughter. The point is that all these difficult questions would not have arisen on Day 1 – because the cladding issue had not yet surfaced and Corporate Manslaughter was a stretch too far (even for Piers Morgan) given what was known at the time.
The final point worth making in terms of Crisis Communications here is that Central Government and the Prime Minister, Theresa May, in particular also suffered reputational damage. The issue for her was that none of her advisors, not even her Press Office, advised her that this was a National story and not just a local story. The point being that for the first few days after the fire, her office was treating this as a local story, allowing Kensington and Chelsea to deal with it (completely inadequately), instead of stepping in and taking charge because this was undoubtedly a national disaster which needed a national and (Prime) ministerial response.
Virtually every Council Leader has either had or says they have had Media Training. In that case why did no one from Kensington and Chelsea Council front up? I think the answer is that you cannot simply have Media Training once and leave it at that. You actually need to do this regularly and practise these hostile media interviews on “major incident type scenarios” such as a fire, in order to give yourself a chance of at least surviving the inevitable media storm and hostile reactions. The training would have also helped with the (far more hostile) public meetings which the Leader, Cabinet and Councillors had to face, where prior coaching in handling difficult questions would have been invaluable.