From unheard to heard: amplifying the voices of bereaved, survivors and residents of the Grenfell fire

By Lily Henbrey, Forster Communications

Grenfell Testimony Week – tribute wall

Earlier this year, Forster had the privilege of managing the media attendance and coverage of Grenfell Testimony Week – a weeklong event where defendants from the Grenfell fire civil claim were invited to hear from survivors, bereaved and residents of the tower about the devastating consequences their actions have had. The purpose was to give these claimants, many of whom have felt unheard, ignored, invisible and unacknowledged, a platform to tell their stories in their own words, to those who they hold responsible for the tragedy.

The testimonies given were deeply moving, painful and human, painting a picture of the impacts and loss created by the fire far beyond anything that might be heard in a courtroom. For example, Hanan Wahabi, who lost her brother, his wife and their three children, spoke of her pain that dreams and ambitions that her family members had will never be realised, while Marcio Gomes, whose son Logan died in his mother’s womb as a result of the fire, imagined the life his son, who would now be six, would have had. Many also spoke of the joy of living in Grenfell Tower before the fire- the community spirit, the sound systems as the Notting Hill Carnival passed by, children playing together outside – another poignant reminder of just what was snatched away.

Coordinating media was therefore an immense responsibility. Media was a channel for these stories to told beyond the room, but it was crucial we made sure this was done in a way that felt authentic and supportive to the people sharing their pain and trauma. All media activity had to be guided entirely by the wishes, needs and wellbeing of the claimants, spending time really getting to know them and their stories, to best amplify their voices respectfully in a media landscape that can be exploitative.

Our role as PR professionals was therefore not just to find opportunities for people to tell their stories, it was also to filter enquiries, protect people and create conditions for responsible, considerate reporting of such an emotive subject. This meant everything from background briefings with media to regularly turning down interviews and enquiries.

It also meant challenging our own professional instincts to want to shape the message, make it more palatable and accessible for the media and the audiences beyond. We had to do one of the hardest things for a PR professional to do, we had to let go.

Our approach meant that those survivors who chose to engage with media were heard unfiltered. Unlike a traditional campaign, there was no overarching message that needed to be hit, leaving flexibility and space for us to work with each claimant on engaging with media in the way that felt right for them, before, during or after the event. The only real objective was for those taking part to feel listened to, and this gave everyone involved freedom to tell their very real, personal and heartbreaking accounts.

The power of these accounts spoke for themselves. The media response was overwhelmingly positive and the resulting coverage was sensitive, putting individuals at the heart. The story led ITV and BBC London news each night, and was covered far and wide, including the Today Programme, the Guardian, Channel 4 News and the Evening Standard. Our role in this at Forster was simply to connect the dots to these outlets, the strength and quantity of the media attention was testament to the individuals who chose to share their stories.

Within this claimant first approach, we were able to centre the sometimes-conflicting views, feelings and anger of individuals towards the tragedy, the defendants and even Grenfell Testimony Week itself. The Grenfell community is wide reaching, with diverse experiences and emotions, and allowing for this multiplicity was necessary to paint a picture of the reality for the community.

Despite this, an overarching theme came through strongly: there is and will never be a substitute for justice. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is ongoing and will impact the Crown Prosecution Service’s forthcoming decision on whether to pursue criminal charges against any individuals or organisations. In those respects, the fight for justice by the bereaved, survivors and local residents, continues.

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