A Right Royal Soap Opera: Royal Family PR Lessons
There are few families more famous than the Windsors. Whether you’re a royalist or not, the British Royal Family is known the world over, and its influence on the culture and international perception of the United Kingdom is undeniable.
Moreover, the British Monarchy is a family business, much like Dyson, Specsavers or bet365. And like any family business, it can be hit by a PR crisis at any time.
Some play out behind closed doors. But many have ended up making international headlines, leaving the Royal PR team scrambling to control the damage.
On that note, let’s look at some of the Royal Family PR nightmares we’ve witnessed over the years (and see what lessons we can take from them), as well as those more positive PR stories.
Death of the People’s Princess
The death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 provoked an unparalleled outpouring of grief from the British public.
Within hours of the news breaking that Diana had died in a car crash in Paris, a sea of floral tributes, letters and gifts appeared outside Kensington Palace. In the days following, tens of thousands of people from around the world headed to London to pay their respects.
The Royal Family were on holiday in Balmoral when the news broke. Rather than head back to London, the Queen decided to remain in Scotland, which sparked outrage from the public.
In their defence, the decision to remain in Scotland was made to protect the young princes (aged 15 and 12 at the time) from media attention. Nevertheless, the choice was not a popular one and public grief quickly gave way to anger over her absence and perceived lack of empathy.
In lieu of the Queen’s presence, Buckingham Palace issued a statement saying, ‘The Queen and Prince Philip are deeply shocked and distressed by this terrible news.’
British media reacts
The Queen and the Royal Court PR team thought this response would suffice, but they were royally wrong, with one message left outside of Buckingham Palace reading: ‘You were a rose among a family of thorns.’ The British media stoked the fire with headlines such as The Daily Mail’s ‘Has the House of Windsor a Heart?’ and ‘Show us you care’ from The Express.
The Queen had a PR crisis on her hands. Her decision to break royal protocol was understandable. But in doing so, she broke a fundamental crisis comms rule and damaged the Royal Family brand.
The Queen eventually bowed to public pressure and returned to London and made an uncharacteristically heartfelt speech in which she acknowledged the tragedy, explained her reasons for remaining in Balmoral and paid a personal tribute to Diana.
Royal Family PR Takeaway
As a leader, people will look to you for support and reassurance in times of trouble. You need to be visible when tragedy strikes. If you shy away from your responsibilities, your personal brand is going to take a hit – and your business will suffer because of it.
Want more disastrous public relations examples? Read: Some of the Worst PR Campaigns of All Time.
The Infamous Oprah Interview
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced in January 2020 that they were stepping down as senior members of the Royal Family. A couple of months later, the couple moved to the United States to make a new life for themselves in sunny California.
But a prince doth not simply gallop off into the sunset and live happily ever after. The alleged feud between Harry and Meghan and the royals played out across the papers and our television sets and blew up following Harry and Meghan’s notorious interview with Oprah Winfrey.
The interview premiered on American network CBS on March 7th, 2021, drawing more than 17 million viewers. A further 12.4 million people watched the UK broadcast the following day. A litany of allegations made by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex left the Royal Family battling a mammoth PR crisis.
Some of the most devastating revelations included how there were ‘several conversations’ within the Royal Family about the colour of Meghan and Harry’s baby; how Meghan considered suicide and was refused help; how Harry felt ‘really let down’ by his father (now King Charles III), who stopped taking his calls.
Truth be told
This was not a good day for Royal Family public relations. But it’s worth noting that Harry and Meghan had their own detractors in the aftermath. Most notably, Piers Morgan, who believes that Meghan told 17 lies during the interview. Although Morgan’s dislike for Meghan is well-documented, some of the statements made by the Duchess were indeed disproved in the following days and weeks.
For example: The revelation that she and Harry were secretly married by the Archbishop of Canterbury prior to the official wedding in May 2018. The Archbishop publicly refuted this, and the Sussex’s later admitted it did not happen. What did happen, according to a spokesperson, was an exchange of ‘personal vows a few days before their official/legal wedding.’
So possibly a miscommunication of their own personal truth, rather than an outright lie? Regardless, this casts a shadow upon the legitimacy of the other details brought to light during the interview.
A right royal mess all round.
Royal Family PR Takeaway
The thing with family businesses is business is always personal.
Where possible, it’s best to resolve internal disputes behind the scenes, rather than letting them spill into the public arena.
Communication is key. It’s clear from this Royal Family public relations example that there was a lack of open and honest communication, resulting in a public outing that caused problems on both sides of the court.
If necessary, bring in an external mediator to help move conversations forwards. Ideally, issues will be resolved. But if not, it’s better for everyone if the bickering and disagreements happen behind closed doors.
King of the Royal Court PR Gaffes
Prince Philip died 9th April 2021, leaving a lasting legacy built on devotion, loyalty and commitment to his Queen and country.
The Duke of Edinburgh also left us with memories of innumerable instances where he opened his mouth before engaging his brain. There was his assessment that ‘British women can’t cook’ in 1966. And bellowing ‘just take the f*****g picture’ at a photographer during a Battle of Britain 75th anniversary event. In fact, you don’t have to look too hard to find examples of Royal Family PR blunders caused by the Duke’s inability to keep his thoughts to himself.
Some are more forgivable than others. But then there are the racist remarks. At a WWF meeting, he was quoted as saying: ‘If it has got four legs and it is not a chair, if it has got two wings and it flies but is not an aeroplane, and if it swims and it is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.’
And the sexist ones: ‘I don’t think a prostitute is more moral than a wife, but they are doing the same thing.’ Or asking a female Sea Cadet: ‘Is it a strip club?’ after she informed him that she worked in a nightclub. Closely followed by the downright thoughtless: ‘You’re too fat to be an astronaut.’ Crushing the dreams of a 13-year-old boy who shared his desire to go into space.
Philip’s off-the-cuff comments have got him into hot water many times, causing PR problems for the rest of the Royal Family by association.
Royal Family PR Takeaway
Think before you speak. Words matter. Choose the right ones or risk causing your business irreparable harm.
The Duke of Edinburgh managed to overcome the uproar that some of his more indefensible comments caused. But he was the Queen’s husband. That provides a certain level of invincibility, rightly or wrongly.
But many have seen their careers ruined due to inappropriate comments and verbal misfires. And it’s not only celebrities who run the risk of being cancelled. The 24/7 news feeds and instant access granted by social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, make choosing your words carefully even more important.
Here’s another example of the Duke of Edinburgh causing a royal PR crisis: Prince Philip Drives into a PR Disaster.
PR The Royal Family Got Right
The news may often be plastered with royal scandals, but ‘The Firm’ often gets it right when it comes to PR.
A Blessing for Modern Royal PR
Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge and now Princess of Wales, can seemingly do no wrong. As the wife of Prince William, the future king, her movements and motions are under the watchful eye of the world’s media.
That level of attention brings with it ample opportunity to do or say something that can drastically alter public perception. Yet, eleven years after her wedding to Prince William, she’s more popular than ever – more so than the majority of Britain’s royals.
As this Independent article states: ‘Kate is a safe bet, their secret weapon. But Kate’s power lies not in her being a radical departure from tradition or espousing any sort of progressive views. It is in what so many criticise her for: being just a little bit, well, boring.’
Being boring is an incredible asset to a family who consistently find themselves surrounded by unwanted dramas.
Royal Family PR Takeaway
Every family business needs a Kate. A strong, stable, calming personality to counteract the chaos that others bring to the fold.
The new Princess of Wales’s role within the Royal Family is a supporting one – and she plays it well. She’s reliable, steadfast, and likeable. All great qualities to have in the midst of a PR crisis.
Long Live the Queen
Millions of people across the world grieved the loss of the UK’s longest reigning monarch, with more than 250,000 viewing the Queen lying in state at Westminster Hall, queuing for 12 hours or more for the privilege.
Interestingly, stats show that support for the monarchy increased following the Queen’s funeral on September 19th.
Accrediting good PR to the death of a public figure may seem a little off, but the numbers don’t lie. The uncharacteristically positive media coverage of the Royal Family also helped. Many praised their commitment to public duty during a time of personal sadness.
Princess Anne the Princess Royal in particular, was credited for showing great composure, respect and dignity during the funeral, and the newly-crowned King Charles III received a positive reaction to his handling of ‘what had the potential to be a rocky transition.’
How long the boost in popularity will last is anyone’s guess. But credit where credit’s due. They handled a traumatic situation with grace and dignity, with the focus firmly on the late monarch.
Royal Family PR Takeaway
The ability to stay strong and focussed in a PR crisis is a must for businesses. The reputation of your brand relies on a strong and united team.
Plans for the day of the Queen’s death had been in place since the 1960s. That’s the epitome of forward planning.
For a business, it’s unlikely you’ll be looking 60 years ahead. But you need to be prepared and have a crisis comms plan in place. If public communication cannot be done in-house, hire a PR pro to take on the responsibility for you.