Charlie discusses Prince Andrew’s recent interview with Newsnight and what crisis communications lessons we can learn from it.
I talked about Prince Andrew in this bulletin on the 20th September 2019, entitled “He knows exactly what he’s done and I hope he comes clean about it”. I ended the article by saying: ‘In the end, this storm will blow over and the media circus will move on to another story and this one will be forgotten. Prince Andrew cannot be “de-princed” and as he has very little commercial endorsement, the lasting impact of this may be minimal, except for the lingering doubt on his reputation’. How wrong I was!
I suspect if he had kept his head down, tried to keep himself out of the newspapers and the public eye, my prediction about the storm blowing over might have been right, but instead he poured petrol on the fire during last Saturday’s interview on Newsnight. The week has ended with him having to withdraw from public life. For me and every other commentator on the incident, there are lots of lessons to be learnt and in this bulletin I want to focus on four of them.
The first lesson is that if you give an interview as opposed to making a statement, then you allow for more facts to be released into the public domain. Every new fact is then a story in itself, which can be analysed, reviewed and commented upon. You give the journalists something more to work with. Although there were new victims of Epstein coming forward, there were no new facts coming out about Prince Andrew. This interview was a treasure trove of new facts and gave the papers enough material to fill a week’s worth of news. Every new piece of information seemed to paint Prince Andrew in a worse light, and his attempt to draw a line under the information and provide himself with alibis just raised even more questions or fuelled the narrative about his lack of judgement. If you want a story to die, don’t give journalists something more to work with, it is a self-inflicted wound.
When I am teaching crisis communications, one key lesson is to put the victims at the centre of your response. At the beginning of the incident you should identify who the victims are and who has been affected or harmed by the incident. You then need to be very mindful of them in all your communications on the incident. Prince Andrew put himself at the centre of the incident and didn’t mention or show any sympathy for the victims of Epstein. Only in his ‘resignation’ letter did he actually mention them. Along with his failure to notice that all the times he was with Epstein he was surrounded by very young girls, plays into the narrative that he either didn’t care to notice what was happening, wasn’t bothered or was complicit in Epstein’s activities. Either way it does not show Price Andrew in a favourable light, hence the intense criticism in the press.
I think one of the greatest enemies of senior people which contributes to why they do interviews that lead to massive criticism, is their arrogance and lack of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. I listened to Jenny Bond, an ex-royal correspondent on Radio Five Live this morning and she described Prince Andrew as self-important, pompous and arrogant. I suspect that in doing the interview he felt that he was being unfairly criticised in the press and if people heard from him, in his own words, then everyone would listen, believe him and everything would be alright. I think he lacked the basic self-awareness that people are not particularly sympathetic towards him, so anything he said, unless he was hugely contrite, would only make things worse. There are echoes of Tony Haywood ‘I want my life back’. My understanding is that many of his advisers warned him against doing the interview, but he ignored them. Part of self-awareness is understanding that you don’t have great emotional intelligence and therefore you need to listen to your advisers as their advice is probably valuable.
One of the ways Prince Andrew could have conducted the interview was to look directly into the camera and make a heartfelt and humble apology, admit that he was stupid and has made a massive mistake, apologise to the victims for not noticing them or doing more, say he would dedicate himself to appropriate good works and make himself available to any police force who wanted to interview him. This was never going to happen, as he felt, as he said in the Newsnight interview, he hadn’t done anything majorly wrong and it was a misjudgement, rather than stupidity. Even in his resignation letter, he gave himself some wiggle room not to speak to the police. Withdrawing from public life is the only act he could have done to draw a line under the incident, as I suspect nobody was going to suggest he goes in front of the camera again. Many commentators have said that it was not his choice to resign, but he was told that this needed to happen in order to protect the monarchy as a whole.
Prince Andrew perhaps should have stuck to the monarchy’s line of dealing with the media ‘never complain, never explain’, and the incident might have faded away. The main lesson I have learnt from this event is to always conduct a risk assessment when thinking about doing a press interview, and review whether this could make things worse or add further fuel to the fire. If this is a possibility, then it is much wiser to do a statement to the cameras and post it on your website, or put out a written statement, but not to do a Newsnight interview.