CSI: Crisis Scene Investigation – By Gail Borden
2019 will be remembered as a booming year for train wreck media interviews and crises. However, the one that earns the crown as “king of the worst 2019 crisis interviews” is a real prince. Really! Prince Andrew is now out of a job, thanks to one ill-advised media interview that could go down as the worst public relations decision of all time.
Prince Andrew decided to conduct a BBC media interview about his longtime friendship with pedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein. To call this media encounter bad is a royal understatement. Note to the Prince and all potential media spokespersons: if you have partied around the world for years with a convicted pedophile, conducting a media interview is not a great idea. Evidently, his goal was to protect his brand and the monarchy’s reputation by explaining away his long friendship with Epstein. But his media interview completely backfired. The fallout keeps coming.
THE CRISIS VICTIMS
Every crisis has victims. In this case some of the victims remain unknown but continue coming out. Many of them are connecting with high-powered lawyers like Hollywood’s Gloria Allred. Virginia Roberts Giuffre is carrying the banner for Epstein victims. Giuffre alleges she was trafficked by Epstein as a teen and forced to have sex with Prince Andrew on three occasions in 2001 and 2002. Giuffre produced a photo of the smiling Prince with his arm around her exposed midriff; she was about 17 years old. That photo has been widely shared by media around the globe. The Prince admits he enjoyed a long friendship with Epstein, but insists he had no part in Epstein’s criminal activities. He is adamant that he has never met Giuffre.
THE MEDIA MAVEN
BBC journalist Emily Maitlis is known for her meticulous, forensic quality questioning. Just as corporate spokespersons often conduct mock interviews to prepare for high profile media interviews, so did Maitlis. A BBC editor stood in as Prince Andrew during rehearsals. Like the most talented interviewers, Maitlis knows exactly when to go quiet. The worst spokespersons feel the need to “fill space” when there is silence. Big mistake!
THE INTERVIEW SCENE
The Prince’s team apparently thought it would be a good idea to conduct the interview at Buckingham Palace. Another very bad idea. BBC photographers shot the cameras and lighting set up. They were also allowed to photograph journalist Maitlis walking around with the Prince throughout the Palace. His PR advisors should have chosen another location to fully separate the Prince from the backdrop of the royal’s home.
MAIN MEDIA MESSAGES
Everything you do communicates! Therefore, you can plan targeted media talking points and still not hit your goals. It takes a seasoned spokesperson to deliver just the right tone verbally and nonverbally. Prince Andrew delivered many awkward, inappropriate and fumbling statements for a painful hour with the BBC’s most seasoned reporter. The worldwide media reaction was immediate. Headlines screamed that first and foremost the Prince expressed no remorse for Epstein’s victims! This should have been at the very top of his messaging list. You can maintain your innocence and still align with the emotions of victims in a crisis interview. Despite having a team of seasoned PR professionals, they somehow missed this most crucial point.
THE SCENE AFTERMATH
The worldwide response was quick and negative. Even Prince Andrew’s mother, Queen Elizabeth, knew how bad it was. Within a short time, she “de-royaled” the Prince, relieving him of all official duties related to the royal family. Advisors associated with the interview also lost their jobs. Now the monarchy’s PR machine is working overtime trying to rebuild public trust and distance the family from the Queen’s favorite son. To make things worse, some British press members say it is proof the palace is suffering from a leadership void and speculate that more fall-out is coming in 2020.
As we coach executives for high-profile media interviews, our team is always filtering for how their comments will live on as headlines. Headlines are powerful. They engage the public’s long-term memory. The following headlines and social media posts best capture the scorched earth left by Prince Andrew:
- Headline from The Sun, Britain’s top-selling paper: “Wince Andrew”
- The Daily Mail headline: “Not One Single Word of Remorse”
- Former Buckingham Palace press officer Dickie Arbiter: “Excruciating”
- Quiz show host Richard Osman on Twitter: “He’s just too thick to even lie properly”
- Craig Oliver, former communications chief for ex-prime minister David Cameron, “the worst PR decision ever – proof you really can make things a lot worse when you try to explain yourself”
- British journalist Peter Barron tweeted: “Astonishing decision by the Royal Family”
- The Daily Mail headline once the Prince was fired: “Outcast”
Benchmark Communications provides reputation management, media coaching and crisis planning services. Our experts have helped organizations address crisis issues such as mass killings, deadly food-borne illnesses, competitor sabotage, class-action lawsuits, fraud, industrial explosions, oil spills, natural disasters and more. This represents the first in a series of CSI / Crisis Scene Investigations focused on media interviews that greatly impact crisis outcomes. If you would like to subscribe to this new series, contact us today or see the Subscribe Box on this page!
CSI: BENCHMARK’S CRISIS TAKEAWAYS
There are some key takeaways from Prince Andrew’s train crash interview:
1. Do not assume! Some people assume a media interview is always a great idea to clarify facts during a crisis. Most of the time we recommend that our clients conduct media interviews in the wake of a crisis event to favorably shape public perceptions. But there is that precious 2% of the time when speaking with reporters during a crisis is a terrible idea. You must ask yourself if conducting the interview will build or erode trust. Prince Andrew’s interview was riddled with inappropriate responses. In the end he eroded trust like a California mudslide. Instead of clarifying things, the Prince muddied the crisis waters even more and cast a dark shadow over the royal family.
2. Think in headlines! As you prepare for media interviews, think in headlines! Leadership guru, Stephen Covey famously said, “Think with the end in mind.” This is also excellent advice in reputation management and crisis planning. What do you want the headlines to read once your media interview has aired? News headlines across the world expressed dismay after Prince Andrew’s media fail. The Daily Mail’s headline read, “Not One Single Word of Remorse”. Unfortunately, the Prince delivered messages that were all about himself. He spent a great deal of time defending himself and the choices he made regarding his friendship with Epstein. That self-focus made Prince Andrew look like an out of touch bumbler.
3. Think emotions! The Daily Mail’s headline citing a lack of remorse by the Prince is a great reminder of the massive role emotions play in a crisis. We tell our clients that they should never choose a media spokesperson who does not understand the role of emotions. During a crisis emotions are like the mighty Mississippi River in the springtime. They will flatten everything in their path, so do not try to swim against the currents of emotions during media interviews. If your media messages are in opposition to the core emotions of the crisis, you will drown in the swirling waters of public distrust.
4. Answer key questions! Before you agree to a media interview there are key questions you must honestly answer. As we help clients assess the pros and cons of media interviews, the following are a few questions we ask.
- What exactly will you gain by conducting this interview?
- What exactly could you lose by talking vs. not talking with the media?
- Does your spokesperson have the interview skills and judgement to align with emotions and favorably influence public perceptions?
- What will be clear to the public after the interview that is now muddled and harmful?
- Will public emotions likely increase or subside after this interview?
5. Choose crisis advisors carefully! Most organizations do not experience crisis events on a regular basis. For this reason, it is crucial to have sound crisis advisors looking out for your interests. Sources in the British press say Prince Andrew had some smart advisors. However, some believe he made the mistake of listening to the loudest advisor who was blinded by her devotion to the Prince and perhaps by her legal training. Amada Thirsk is an attorney and former banker. She has headed Prince Andrew’s charity organization since 2012 with the title of his personal secretary. The British media describe Thirsk as “a force of nature” and now accuse her of drowning out the experienced voices of other PR advisors who begged Prince Andrew to avoid the media. The PR advisor who strongly objected to the interview resigned shortly before the tragic BBC broadcast. When the stakes are high, it is prudent to listen to more than one advisor. Then, discern who is asking the best questions that will set you up for success.
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ABOUT GAIL & BENCHMARK COMMUNICATIONS
Gail lives on a Texas ranch with her family and some wonderful animals! We support a horse therapy program for people with disabilities, as well as local animal shelters that rescue abandoned dogs and cats.
Benchmark has consulted with and coached leaders and organizations from all 50 USA states and more than 25 countries. The Benchmark team provides award-winning leadership and communication strategies to Fortune 500 groups so they can achieve their business, leadership and reputation management goals. We provide consulting, training and coaching services in: reputation management, crisis response, media skills, stakeholder engagement, effective communications, public speaking, leadership development, storytelling and soft skills training.