The fallout from the Grenfell Tower crisis continues unabated and has hit senior levels of Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council – with angry accusations of an absence of leadership and more heads rolling.

The Council’s Chief Exec was forced to resign straight after the fire. Now the Council Leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown, has quit too – along with his deputy Rock Feilding-Mellen.

The interesting question here is was it – as is often the risk – Paget-Brown’s lawyers’ advice which pushed his reputation over the edge?

Closed doors

The trigger event was last Thursday’s cabinet meeting, which the council tried to hold behind closed doors.

With the world watching every development in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, and a highly precarious community atmosphere, that was an extremely provocative move.

When the media got a court order allowing them into the meeting at the last minute, Paget-Brown astonished everyone by reading a statement and abruptly calling the meeting off:

‘We can’t have an unprejudiced discussion in this room with a public inquiry that’s about to take place if journalists are recording and writing our comments … that would prejudice the public inquiry. That is the legal advice I have received.’

The room descended into uproar. He was confronted by Councillor Robert Atkinson, who stood up to shout:

‘An absolute fiasco. This is why I am calling for your resignation. Not because of what happened with the fire but the sheer and on-going incompetence this council has shown ever since it happened.’

You can see all this unfold in The Guardian’s video:

Something to hide

I’m not a lawyer. But from a reputational point of view, trying to hold the meeting behind closed doors in such a sensitive situation, and cancelling it when journalists arrived, would inevitably look like having something to hide. And it was clearly going to provoke a huge backlash.

Certainly, the media’s solicitors claim an imminent inquiry is no legal reason to hold meetings in private. ‘This can only be interpreted as suggesting the council wanted to discuss matters they did not want the public inquiry to know about,’ said The Guardian’s Legal Director.

Downing Street, the Communities Secretary and London Mayor all condemned the Council Leader’s actions as inappropriate and undemocratic.

And it appears Paget-Brown himself now regrets them. Amongst his reasons for quitting, he said:

‘In particular, my decision to accept legal advice that I should not compromise the public inquiry by having an open discussion in public yesterday, has itself become a political story. And it cannot be right that this should have become the focus of attention when so many are dead or still unaccounted for.’

You can see his resignation speech here:


It may well be true that legal advice was at least partly behind this reputational crisis for Kensingon & Chelsea Council and Paget-Brown – and that he was just trying to follow the advice. It’s a danger that often lurks in a crisis situation.

Solicitors typically insist on a highly cautious approach, trying to eliminate any possible legal risk. To an extent, of course, that’s their job. But it can become a big problem if they – and their clients – become fixated on the legal position in isolation, with no thought for the organisation’s broader reputation.

In Kensington’s case, the community is up in arms, the council is under fire and anything other than openness was inevitably going to make the situation much worse.

Thomas Cook parallel

This story has echoes of the reputational crisis that hit Thomas Cook a while back – the tragic case of two children killed by a faulty boiler in their holiday villa some.

As I wrote here, it took Thomas Cook’s CEO, Peter Fankhauser, an incredible nine years to apologise and contact the bereaved family – and only then after an inquiry ruled the company had ‘breached its duty of care’. By then, it was too late to make amends.

I’m sure a big part of Thomas Cook’s apparent lack of compassion was down to blindly following the advice of hard-nosed lawyers.

But as Fankhauser acknowledged with massive understatement, it was ultimately down to him to balance his legal advice against broader considerations, including a sense of basic humanity:

‘I don’t want to blame the lawyers. It’s ultimately my responsibility how we communicate. Obviously we could have done better.’

Wrong choice

In a crisis, legal advice is usually vital.

But the best lawyers know they need to work in partnership with communications advisors to protect the organisation’s reputation as well as its legal exposure, and that it’s not always feasible to eliminate all legal risk.

And smart decision makers know they need to balance all relevant advice and look at the big picture in choosing the best course of action.

Thomas Cook now knows it made the wrong choice. So, I think, does Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council.

For advice on a reputational problem or handling a disaster, see our crisis communications services.