Just Say No- When the best communications strategy is to shut up

When Prince Andrew sat down for an extended interview with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis, it was one of the “gets” of the year. Great for Maitlis and her program.  Not so great for the House of Windsor.

Not since King Charles I rose in his own defence at his trial in 1649 has royal oratory met with such calamity.  Charles lost his crown and his head.  The Duke of York was yanked from public duties and his mother cancelled his 60th birthday party, leaving him physically intact but exposed as an insensitive toff.

As a former reporter my default position is to advise clients to do interviews, even in times of crisis, reasoning that it is always better to tell your own story rather than have others tell it for you.

But there are exceptions. In Andrew’s case it was a glaring, five-alarm-fire, nuclear meltdown exception.   There are times when a face to face interview is going to be a no-win scenario.  Perhaps the journalist is known to be aggressive and is likely to roast the client. Other times the story is just so negative and the answers to the likely questions so weak that it is best to decline.  So it should have been with Prince Andrew.

In those situations, the only alternative is to put out a statement with the best available message, keep one’s royal trap shut and do not add fuel to the fire.  Other people facing such a negative story might risk being ambushed by a reporter and camera, but even the proudly bumptious British news media are unlikely to “doorstep” a royal.

Given that his PR director resigned not long before the interview, it is reasonable to surmise that the prince was indeed advised to decline but relied on his own flawed instincts and inflated sense of brilliance to believe he could clear up everything through a chat with a formidable interrogator on national television.  His flak no doubt threw up his hands and left rather than be a party to the catastrophe to come.

The Duke of York has a record of showing a tin ear to public perceptions and a high sense of entitlement, even for a royal.  He was dubbed “Air Miles Andy” for having helicopters carry him over the commoners stuck in traffic to convey him to nearby engagements.  Along with his friendship with the vile sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, his propensity for cozying up to autocrats and crooks had already caused The Firm much embarrassment.

He displayed similar wisdom both in accepting the interview and in his performance.

BBC Newsnight has a long tradition of no-holds-barred interviews, with hosts known for interrupting, badgering and at times verging on verbal torture of guests.  But Maitlis sagely chose to remain calm, polite and devastatingly focused, never more so than when Andrew said: “Do I regret the fact that he has quite obviously conducted himself in a manner unbecoming? Yes.”  At which Maitlis narrowed her eyes and pointedly responded, “Unbecoming? He’s a sex offender”.

“Yeah, I’m sorry, I’m being polite,” harrumphed the hapless prince, his already damaged reputation now disappearing down the toilet.

In times of crisis, we counsel clients to be guided by the principles of empathy, responsibility and transparency.  He failed on all three.

No empathy for Epstein’s victims, no responsibility for his actions and no transparency in his slippery answers.  His only expressed regret was for “letting down the team”.

But his largest mistake was in not saying no to the interview. Unlike his ancestor Charles I, he gets to keep his head, but his punishment will be to live out his remaining days with a ruined reputation.