Grenfell Tower tragedy – realities and unrealities in the aftermath of a devastating fire

Facebook and Twitter are fizzing with fury about the government’s reaction and the responses of the local council, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC); Grenfell Tower’s management company, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO); and various companies involved in the tower’s refurbishment.


Much of it is agitprop, deliberately designed to whip up unrest. Much of it is generated by political extremists, always fast to exploit weaknesses in leadership or spot a chance to damage the people and institutions they oppose. And much of it is unsubstantiated by which I mean … made up. Agitprop appeals directly to the naïve of whom there are many on social media, where fantasy is routinely portrayed as reality (or, at least, the exceptional portrayed as the typical). And what naïve people do is fall for this fake news – then spread it. Often with added inference and embellishment.

Numbers, please

After a tragedy such as this, people want facts. Yet, with many tragedies, it can be impossible to give the facts. There is so much that cannot be known until much later.

In the case of the Grenfell Tower fire, one current issue that is being whipped-up is “concealment” of the number of people killed by the fire. How can there be concealment when no-one knows how many people were in the tower? All the police, the local authority, the block management company, the residents, anyone, can go on is the number of people reported missing. They will only know who is safe if those who are safe have reported themselves as safe. They cannot know exactly how many, or who, died. Yes, they can refer to tenancy lists but they won’t necessarily include the names of everyone living there. Yes, they can ask neighbours if they knew how many people lived in the flat next door or if they knew about other flats in the block. But they cannot know exactly who was in the block that night. That is a fact.

Without a list against which to tick off names, it is impossible to know the numbers. After a plane crash, for example, it is possible – there will be a passenger list including the crew. There is no such list for a block of flats. In offices, visitors are asked to sign in and out; it’s not like that in blocks of flats (perhaps it should be, but it isn’t). There are also many variables. Was anyone on holiday and out of contact? Was anyone holding a party, with visitors from inside or outside the block? Were friends staying the night? No-one knows. No-one can know. Nevertheless, talk of “concealment” appeals to those who immediately need scapegoats or who dislike the institutions involved. They are ripe for exploitation – and exploited they are by people posting blogs or comments that are “credible sounding”, as one Facebook friend put it after posting a link to a blog she’d read. Credible sounding is not the same as true. (My reading of that blog was that it was a mass of assertions and allusions to supposed people saying supposed things about supposed facts. It was incredible sounding to me.)

Linked with this is an allegation that the bodies of 60 children are in body bags in a morgue. It’s wholly unsubstantiated. As we all know, anything about children cuts straight to our core. Many suspend disbelief. Unable to protect and nurture the vulnerable, innocent young, they are quick to share shocking “statistics” in horror. Advertisers and marketing specialists know this – and exploit it. So do agitpropagandists. That anyone died in this tragedy is awful enough. Exploiting our emotional responses by telling tales that pull at our heartstrings is not a responsible response to any tragedy. At this stage, the police know that 58 people have so far been reported missing, some of whom died while fleeing or in hospital. That is all they can know. Talk of the bodies of 60 children in body bags in a morgue is irresponsible fake news. It also doesn’t ring true after a fire.

Explanations help to manage expectations

It is a grim fact that, in a fire, bodies will be burned. There might or might not be whole bodies to recover. There might or might not be body parts to recover. There might or might not be body fragments to recover. It is impossible to know what might be found, if anything. Until whatever has been found has been identified by DNA matching, it is impossible to know who died in the fire and whether they were adults or children. We might never know how many died.

Given that terrible reality, the spokespeople from the fire, ambulance and police services have not yet fully managed our expectations, though their responses have been impressively responsible generally. We’ve had statements about the possibility that the number of those who died could increase, but nothing about the wider context – the context that will stop scurrilous agitprop: the facts about what might or might not be recovered. It’s bad news. But bad news must be told. [As I post this blog, the reality is emerging with the publication of photos inside Grenfell Tower but the reality’s been far too long a time coming.]

How to give bad news

Tell the worst possible news first to the people affected and tell them direct, with sensitivity, one-to-one or family-to-family and face-to-face. It’s not easy; it can be harrowing for you as well as for the person you are with. You will have to explain that there might never be a body to recover, to mourn or grieve for. And you’ll have to explain why. Bring in counsellors to do this on your behalf to be sure the tone is right, the pace is right, the support is right but don’t retreat into the background. Be visible, making sure that everyone knows the councillors represent you, that you’ve recognised the specialist help you need. Leave all those affected with the same information on paper, nothing more and nothing less. It is hard to take in shocking news, it might be unheard, misheard or misunderstood. Having it to refer to later is essential.

Then tell the public. Explanations help manage expectations – and they help stop the spread of inventive rumour.

Get out there

It is ironic that, the institution that left wing extremists dislike most – the monarchy – has got its response right. HRH Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge and HRH Prince Harry – all RBKC residents – were swift to donate money. HM The Queen issued a statement immediately, visited (with Prince William) survivors and volunteers, issued a second statement on her official birthday respecting the sombre mood of the nation on what would normally be a day of celebration, and held a minute’s silence before setting off for Horseguards Parade.

Meanwhile, prime minister Theresa May and local authority RBKC were noticeable for their relative invisibility.

Instead of visiting the scene to meet survivors and those affected, prime minister Theresa May stayed in home secretary mode and met the emergency services but not also the survivors and relatives. When she visited St Clement’s Church, she left by a side door to avoid protestors chanting “coward” and “murderer”. She later met victims, residents and volunteers – at 10 Downing Street. In a situation such as this, you must first go to the scene, to the people affected, to the heart of it, and go immediately. You must accept there will be protestors. You must tough it out. Not doing so will make you look like a scaredycat – and make it much easier for protagonists to be antagonistic.

Small points add up to so much more

RBKC has been seen – and not seen. It closed the Town Hall after a physical attack, and decamped to the Westway Sports Centre and elsewhere, but did not leave information about that on the Town Hall’s doors, leading the BBC to a story, about silence and inactivity, that could and should have been avoided. Put up signs! (It’s not enough to put the information on your website; you must post it everywhere including on the doors.) Depending on the state of the damage, it might have been wiser to stay put with increased security – so it is clear the council is at work and active. Just as importantly, this soon after a crisis, the press office should be operating round the clock, and accompanying journalists to offices and other places of activity, not leaving them to find locked doors and inactivity. Call in extra people to support your communications.

Additionally, although leader Nick Paget-Brown speaks effectively in television interviews, though some will inevitably question the veracity of his comments, it is never appropriate to appear after a disaster in an open-necked casual weekend shirt. Wear a sober tie and a suit. Even on a day as hot as today. It is not about your comfort, it is about respect for those affected by the incident. He is of course in shock and sleep-deprived and therefore, as anyone else would be, prone to acting strangely. But wearing the right clothes should be an automatic action. It’s drummed into you in media training. It’s about impressions and, if you need to be believed, you need to look credible.

Avoid making the crazy crazier

There is much more to be said about the responses to this terrible tragedy that have provided the opportunities for agitating propagandists to destabilise those responsible for responding. Ultimately, it all comes down to communication.

As American journalist and satirist, the late H L Mencken, said, “A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.” As we’ve seen from inaccurate, sometimes scurrilous, comments posing as facts, it applies to social media, too.

  • Be prepared for fantastical claims and counter them with confirmed and verifiable facts – naivete spreads unrest.
  • Give bad news and unpalatable facts direct to those affected, in person first and on paper for clarification – it can be hard to listen to, and absorb, horrible news.
  • Minimise unrest by communicating authoritatively, visibly and regularly – arrange fixed-time (daily, perhaps twice-daily) meetings with each group separately so everyone has first-hand facts and can ask questions – being visible, informative and accountable will encourage confidence in your leadership.
  • Manage expectations by explaining to everyone, including the public, realities including the unpalatable facts given to those affected – this will help reduce the opportunities for scurrilous information to be spread.
  • Publicise facts – all the facts – as soon as they emerge – openness, honesty and transparency should be your guide.
  • Be available and visible round the clock for as long as is appropriate even in the face of anger and protest – this is not the time to be complacent or to run and hide.
  • Tell everyone, in every way possible, that you are available – it’s the small things, such as signs on doors, that can make the difference.
  • Be respectful – wear clothes appropriate to the situation even in the hottest heat or at the weekend.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate – call in extra people to support your communications and keep telling people what you are doing using every means possible. this!

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