Last week saw the first public meeting of Kensington and Chelsea Council since the disastrous fire on their patch at Grenfell Tower, which killed more than 80 people.

The meeting didn’t go well.  Feelings were already running high about the council’s handling of the disaster, and a previous meeting of senior councillors was abandoned because the chairman objected to the presence of the media.

So the latest meeting was always going to be difficult. But it needn’t have been as difficult as it was.

The Council elected a new leader, Elizabeth Campbell, who expressed sympathy for the victims and apologised for the mistakes in the council’s handling of the disaster. She admitted that in her eleven years as a Councillor she’d never been inside a tower block. An awkward fact, but she was frank about it and her candour was refreshing. Then she made several concrete promises of action to help survivors.

But …. this meeting, to which survivors were specifically invited in order to tell their stories, managed to lock some of them out. They were banging on the door, and only admitted by nervous security guards after opposition councillors intervened. While they were banging, a councillor was seen on camera mouthing “don’t let them in!” And after two hours of harrowing testimony, the Mayor apparently said “thank you for your stories. Now let’s get on with the meeting.”

Such behaviour can come across as cold and uncaring, but it’s actually more sophisticated than that.

What’s happening is a psychological phenomenon called “othering”, which is a self-protective human instinct to distance ourselves from painful human emotion.

It happens because emotion is contagious. When it’s good, we love it. That’s why we enjoy parties and music festivals. We’re enjoying and experiencing the enjoyment of others.

But when the emotion is bad – pain, grief, fear – we still receive it, but often find it too intense to bear. So we cut ourselves off from it. When the emotion is felt by a group, and those receiving it are also a group, ranks tend to close and you get two ‘tribes’.

This happens a lot when one ‘tribe’ are suffering and the other is seen as somehow to blame. Tribe A will be angry with Tribe B, who may feel unfairly accused and react with indifference or hostility to Tribe A.

These behaviours will reinforce each other. What’s more, Tribe B may stop giving out information. Tribe A will then become even more resentful and even more vocal about it. The media will start reporting Tribe A’s side of the story. Typically Tribe B won’t talk to the media.

This is what appears to have happened between the Grenfell Tower survivors and the local council. It’s also what happened between the families grieving after the Hillsborough Stadium disaster and the police; and between the grieving families from the disappeared Malaysian Airlines flight 370 and the airline.

The way to avoid this is to invite survivors and aggrieved people into the First Loop of information. Be completely frank with them and make sure they are always the first to know any new piece of information, before the media and before social media.

It’s hard to do. You will probably feel emotional yourself, and be tempted to minimise your own sense of hurt, even if it means denying what went wrong or counter-accusing the accusers.

But if you handle it properly – and acknowledge any fault with honesty and humility – you will avoid causing further distress to already traumatised people, and minimise the ongoing effects of the crisis.

More on the Kensington and Chelsea council meeting here.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/24/grenfell-victims-pleading-humanity-council-resign

My workshop ‘How to Handle the Media in a Crisis’ takes place in London on September 5th.

http://bit.ly/2tnBy24