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Artillery Row

The royals needs better PR

We have seen too many royal disasters

Last week Netflix released Scoop, a film which tells the story of Prince Andrew’s now-infamous Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis. Based on a book by Sam McAlister — the producer whose determination and deftness secured the opportunity for the BBC’s flagship news programme — it is a fabulous reminder of a public relations catastrophe.

Then working in reputation management, I watched Prince Andrew and the Epstein Scandal in November 2019 with growing incredulity. It very quickly became clear that this was an unwitting but invaluable demonstration of how to dynamite a public image. The Duke of York, calm, assured, confident, attempted to explain his relationship with the late paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, carelessly letting slip now-legendary phrases.

At one point, Maitlis suggested that the prince had hosted a birthday party for Epstein. Royal eyebrows rose. No, he explained. “It was a shooting weekend… a straightforward shooting weekend.” Imagine the shame of being unable to distinguish between those two very different social settings.

Later, she referred to an account by Virginia Giuffre, who accused Andrew of having raped her when she was 17, of him sweating. “I didn’t sweat at the time,” he countered, “because I had suffered what I would describe as an overdose of adrenaline in the Falklands War when I was shot at.”

The most astonishing feature of the 58-minute interview was that the prince thought it went well. He was sufficiently happy with his performance that he graciously gave the BBC visitors a tour of Buckingham Palace after the filming. It seemed, in his mind, to have vindicated the advice of his private secretary, Amanda Thirsk, to submit himself to the questioning.

The repercussions were catastrophic. Andrew’s performance of entitled, self-pitying outrage curdled public opinion while raising very serious questions about his judgement as a public figure. A few days later, Buckingham Palace announced he was suspending his public duties “for the foreseeable future”; no-one seriously supposes he will ever return to them.

This was bound to be what corporate jargon calls a “learning” for the Royal Household in PR terms. That, at least, was what people in the industry assumed. While it is hard to imagine a member of the royal family reaching such reputational lows in the near future, the past five years have seen stumbles follow trips.

Sheer, bewildering incompetence peaked last month with the issue, and then withdrawal, of a photograph of the Princess of Wales

In 2022, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attracted stinging criticism for a tour of Jamaica which seemed almost to have been framed to recall the stiff colonial visitations of the 1950s. The Firm, as courtiers refer to the royal family, was already struggling with the departure from official duties of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and their subsequent, very pointed promotional campaign. Sheer, bewildering incompetence peaked last month with the issue, and then withdrawal, of a photograph of the Princess of Wales on Mother’s Day. She had been absent from the public eye for months — we now know she had been diagnosed with cancer — and a clumsily photoshopped family portrait stoked wild speculation.

The underlying problem is that the Royal Household has recognised that its communications operations need to improve and modernise, but has attempted, stubbornly and unsuccessfully, to make this happen under its own terms. The royals should be made more human, more relatable, because that is what the public wants, but the same public must also be content with information which is handed to it de haut en bas. It is a Boris Johnson-style bid for “cakeism”, the former prime minister describing his attitude as “pro having it and pro eating it too”.

This more approachable image is still being managed by structures in the royal household which have existed for centuries: private secretaries recruited from the Diplomatic Service and the armed forces manage complex media and logistical operations because they always have. Last year, the Prince and Princess of Wales hinted at a change of course: they hired recruitment experts Odgers Berndtson to find a CEO to be “the most senior and accountable leader for the Household”. This figure would require “emotional intelligence” and “low ego”, as well as being “able to operate as a ‘servant’ leader, empowering the senior team”. An appointment is yet to be made, six months on.

Inherited structures can adapt and improve, and it is not always necessary to undertake a revolution to accommodate changing circumstances. The royal family needs senior figures who understand duty and public service, who grasp that sometimes the monarchy must play a longer game than the immediate news cycle.

But traditional organisations prosper by co-opting expertise. The monarchy must be focused and professional when it comes to controlling its image. It was symbolic of Prince Andrew’s fall from grace that the Newsnight interview was against the advice of his PR adviser Jason Stein, who resigned after a brief tenure only weeks before the encounter took place.

Good PR advisers are worth a king’s — or prince’s — ransom, but they are only valuable if their principals listen to their advice. Whether you call someone a private secretary or a chief executive officer, he or she must know how to manage an organisation, how to form a coherent strategic view and how to exploit the expertise of a team. Scoop shows us that when amateurs wonder how hard public relations can really be, the world is ready to give them a savage illustration.

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