Group Gordon’s Emily Bell shares the latest insights and crisis management lessons for the ongoing fiasco roiling the Royal Family.
That’s right: we’re back with another installment of Royal PR-Watch. My colleague Rhani Franklin covered the initial backlash from – and serious PR missteps leading up to – Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s internet-breaking Oprah interview last month. In this post, I’ll cover crisis management lessons based on the Firm’s latest floundering.
Since the interview aired, the Royal PR machine’s counteroffensive has been cringeworthy to observe. It’s probably not surprising that damage control attempts are going so badly, especially considering their history of mishandling their brightest PR stars, Princess Diana (RIP) and Meghan Markle. But their missteps do at least highlight some key tenets of successful crisis communications that your organization can hopefully deploy more successfully.
The alleged quotes about Archie’s skin tone were probably the most talked-about revelation of the interview, especially because Meghan & Harry declined to name names. Social media users wasted no time speculating on the source of the comments, with many people focusing on Prince Philip or Prince Charles, both of whom have struggled with bad PR. Yet, for some reason, the Royal PR team decided to focus their counter campaign on Prince William, who was originally an underdog candidate for the quote’s source. In the week after the interview, Prince William made several conspicuous comments and appearances, beginning with his unsubstantiated claim that the Windsors are “very much not a racist family,” and culminating in an article in The Telegraph written by his friend Seyi Obakin defending him against charges of racism.
The effect was to draw even more attention to Prince William as the potential source of the heinous comments. By refusing to engage with the controversy directly and instead flooding print and social media with content that seemed to be either directly or implicitly denying Prince William’s involvement, the Royal comms team created something of a Streisand effect, fueling even more speculation on social media that Prince William was the source of the racist comments – and also a complete phony.
Sometimes our clients mess up, and as PR professionals, it’s our job to advise them to acknowledge and apologize for the harm they’ve caused. Of course, when the client believes they have the divine right to rule, that’s a little more challenging. The statement that the Palace issued in response to the Oprah interview was almost a textbook example of how not to apologize. In lieu of taking any responsibility, they basically said, “sorry you were offended, but we remember things differently.” In response to Meghan’s harrowing account of her mental health crisis, the statement came across as especially callous and petty.
Looking back at all of the Windsors’ many PR blunders over the years – from gaslighting Princess Diana, to the many racist comments from Prince Philip and other members that predate Meghan Markle’s arrival, to Prince Andrew’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein – we see a clear trend: they refuse to take accountability for harm or admit when they are at fault.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this whole royal ruckus is the critical importance of recognizing and changing fundamental problems in an organization. Luckily, everyone’s client is not literally a centuries-old institution with inflexible, archaic hierarchies – though sometimes it feels that way with organizations that insist on doing things “the way we’ve always done them.”
When you act as though the top dog is infallible and shift blame to those who rock the boat, as the Royal family and its team historically have done, it’s harder to see problems and patterns. Famously, one of the many stressors in the relationship between the Royal Family and Princess Diana was their bitterness over her natural relatability and talent for connecting with the people. Instead of conceding that they could have something to learn from Diana, they undermined her.
At best, organizations like that are set up to block good PR people from doing good work. At worst, they accumulate “Yes men,” who end up rolling out disastrous PR campaigns like the one playing out across the pond right now. Both scenarios are tremendously damaging for your brand.
Liz, if you’re reading this, give us a call. We do crisis work and it really seems like you need it.