Grenfell Tower – PR treads a fine line

By Tim Walsh Chart.PR

In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, the world is still trying to make sense of it.

For the media, the story has developed from the unfolding horror of the first hours to a complex, multi-themed account, as details continue to emerge as part of investigations by journalists and the authorities.

And for many onlookers, Grenfell Tower could become an unbearably vivid illustration of a range of issues upon which they have campaigned – among them, the state of housing for those on low incomes, the preparedness of local services, and building safety regulations and their enforcement in the UK.

In this exemplification, the PR industry has been challenged. It’s a fact of life that the media will not wait for official investigations to conclude before seeking answers. Running ahead of the painstaking enquiries by the police and fire services, journalists are chasing leads now while this human tragedy remains raw and at the front of our minds. In addition, this story has immediacy in the risks to people living today in similar conditions.

And when the media goes looking for answers, experts – and the PR teams behind them – are turned to. And herein lies that fine line, between humanely helping the media to tell a story, and the risks of being seen to be opportunistic.

For the media, the Grenfell Tower story has now entered a new phase, from a story covered daily to one reported on solely when significant developments occur.

Other disasters and big stories will happen, and for all the dreadful, everlasting effects of the Grenfell Tower blaze, its currency as a story in a fast-moving news agenda will change.

For those of us working for organisations in health and safety, the Grenfell Tower fire demonstrated what could happen without the robust enforcement of strong safety regulations. Questions have been raised about whether UK rules on building materials are adequately stringent – or at least adequately enforced. The Government has been slow to complete a review on fire safety.

These are important ‘life or death’ issues relevant to people living across the UK, and yet these are not issues covered widely – in any other week, building safety regulations cannot hope to compete with Brexit, Trump, Syria etc. In late June, however, they became newsworthy.

The health and safety community is not one that regularly comes together as one voice. It is represented by a number of organisations, including professional bodes such as the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) – my employer.

And while there is common ground shared by us all, differences in position and competing agendas can get in the way. The functional strategies of communications teams are tied to their organisations’ corporate strategies. Our natural tendencies are to look to raise the profile and embolden the voice of our own – inclinations in common with other industries.

This changed post-Grenfell. The response by the health and safety community following the Grenfell Tower fire was shaped, in part, by a collective will to give insight on how such an event can occur.

However, it is inescapable that this dreadful loss of life presented an opportunity, to question how this country regulates and enforces regulations for fire safety. The health and safety profession is dogged in its determination to ensure lessons are learned so such avoidable tragedies are not repeated.

Interviews secured on Radio 4’s Today programme and other BBC radio stations were all the more powerful because a single spokesperson was representing 10 industry bodies and 60 individuals who had signed a letter to UK Prime Minister Theresa May, calling for a rethink on deregulation. This number has risen to some 1,000 individuals since, and the issue of how we set and enforce fire safety regulations is now very much in the public eye.

In raising this issue so effectively, however, it is not lost on those of us charged with pushing this into the public eye that a catastrophic loss of life was the platform for our doing so. In speaking as one voice, the health and safety community’s constituent organisations set aside any thoughts of making capital, but the Grenfell Tower blaze and other events like it do test the PR industry’s ethics in how it acts in response to the issues raised.

Tim Walsh Chart.PR is Head of Communications and Media at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). Previous roles include Government senior information officer (SIO) and journalist for the Press Association.

Image courtesy of flickr user ChiralJon

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