Interview of the week: Prince Andrew and Emily Maitlis
November 18, 2019

Image: BBC


Poor Prince Andrew.  At least that’s how he’d like us to feel.  And, in a way I do feel sorry for him.  But not because of the onslaught of unsavoury allegations and unflattering headlines that he’s had to suffer.  No, I sympathise with the prince because he’s been so badly advised.  I’ve helped various celebrities, senior figures and those thrown into the limelight to manage the media in difficult situations, so I’ve been particularly interested in this case.

Certainly, Prince Andrew’s interview with Emily Maitlis has been something of a public relations disaster.  Instead of ending speculation and improving his public profile, it’s actually done the opposite.

So, what went wrong?  And what can organisations and anyone else facing hostile conventional and social media coverage learn from his mistakes?


The choice of outlet

His first error was the choice of outlet.  This is not a criticism of Maitlis, if anything, it’s a backhanded compliment but I would not have put the Duke of York in front of her if he’d been my client.

I can see why the prince’s team decided to opt for a serious interviewer on a serious programme rather than a morning and daytime television slot.  It should have added dignity and avoided a tabloid element.

Her forensic, unsympathetic style is perfect for holding politicians and other influential people to account but the Duke’s team should have realised that it would be a serious risk in this situation.

His advisors should have remembered that generally, sincere, breast beating TV interviews by the Royals do them no favours – think about the Sussex’s with Tom Bradby or Prince Charles with Jonathan Dimbleby and, of course, Diana, Princess of Wales’ famous Panorama appearance.


Greater control

Instead, I’d have gone for a print title.  Why? Because it would have been the words that were reported and not the prince’s manner which veered between embarrassment and arrogance.  The writer might have described his demeanour, but this would not have had the same impact on the audience as actually seeing it.

I’d have arranged for photographs to be done after the interview.  Ideally, the prince would have looked thoughtful, concerned and sincere.

Second, and very importantly, I would have told the prince that if he was going to do this high-risk interview, he needed to appear humble and express contrition right from the start – and to continue to do so.  We needed to hear genuine sympathy for the young women that his one-time friend Jeffrey Epstein had abused and others who had suffered similarly.  He should also have apologised for the embarrassment that he caused the country and the Royal Family.


Self-pity is not on

What about his messages?  For a person in a position of power and privilege to express self-pity is particularly galling and so he should not have done it.  Simple as that.  In our crisis management courses we visit examples where company leaders and spokespeople have explained that they’re tired or under a lot pressure. Think of the comment by BP CEO Tony Hayward following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, that “I want my life back.”  Yeah, my heart bleeds, mate.

Prince Andrew didn’t have to accept liability or actually apologise for any of things that he’s been criticised for – unless he wanted to make an on-air confession that is.  Here, though, there would have been plenty of genuine remorse for his behaviour.

His reference to “honour” as he stuck by Epstein sort of makes sense as a misguided feeling of loyalty but if he’d tested this line with anyone else beforehand, they would surely asked about his sense of honour towards the women involved.

What about the sweating and pizza points?  Prince Andrew makes the classic mistake here of thinking that he’s going to persuade people by providing an argument against what he’s accused of.  He seems to think that somehow the widespread condemnation of his behaviour and dislike of his lifestyle will be diminished when people hear these facts.


Facts rarely change people’s minds

The truth is that if you’re a supporter of the Prince you might use them in his defence.  However, facts rarely change people’s minds.  We’re all guilty of confirmation bias – we’ve decided on something and then we find facts to support our view.  As for those that contradict it – well, we conveniently ignore them.

When I’m writing speeches for people or training them to do media interviews I talk about the value of the ethos as well as the logos, as described by Aristotle.  In other words, whether we believe what someone tells us is fundamentally influenced by how we feel about them – their ethos – and what we know of them rather than the strength of their argument, the logos. If I don’t like or trust you, however many facts you throw at me, I’m just not going to be persuaded.

I don’t suppose many people will shed a tear for Prince Andrew but those in PR and corporate communications should at least learn from this from PR debacle.


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