There is some advice we give far more often than others during our media training courses.
One of our golden rules we discuss during almost every course is the importance of spokespeople not repeating the journalist’s negative language.
And Prince William provided the perfect example of why this is so important.
Speaking for the first time since the Harry and Meghan interview, during a school visit in London, the future king responded to a question asking whether the royal family “was a racist family” by saying “we are very much not a racist family.”
After all that work on that statement, Prince William says: "We're very much not a racist family”— Alex Thompson (@AlexThomp) March 11, 2021
As media interview gaffes go, it is right up there.
The careless comment was instantly turned into headlines, all containing the word ‘racist’:
Prince William says 'we are very much not a racist family' and he hasn't spoken to Harry yet but plans to Sky News
Royal family is 'very much not' racist, says Prince William Guardian
Meghan and Harry interview: Royal Family 'very much not racist' – William BBC News
Prince William says royals are 'very much not a racist family' in first remarks since explosive interview CNN
In addition to creating a headline writer’s dream, the comment was repeatedly aired during just about every TV and radio news bulletin on Thursday (11/3).
Journalists regularly ask questions like this. You will often hear them say something like “This is very disappointing, isn’t it? Aren’t you disappointed?”
And the natural temptation is to say something like “I wouldn’t say it’s disappointing…”
The problem with this is you just have. The journalist’s negative language can now be attributed to you.
Whether it’s broadcast or press, they have a neat soundbite with you saying whether or not you are “disappointed” or, in this case, if your family is “racist”.
Repeating the negativity can also reinforce the strength of the accusation in the audience’s minds.
But you don’t need to repeat negative language to rebut or deny it.
William could have used a similar line to that used in the Buckingham Palace statement and said something like “I’m obviously concerned about the issues that have been raised.”
Remember, this was a doorstep style interview, so there was no need or expectation to go into any great detail. And headlines saying Prince William was "concerned" would be a lot less memorable than those containing the word "racist".
The second in line to the throne and his advisors must have known there would be media at this event and they surely anticipated that those journalists would shout out questions.
So, it seems strange a better way had not been prepared to deal with a question like this.
There will no doubt be many who are left scratching their heads that, after Buckingham Palace carefully – and slowly - crafted a response about the issues raised during the interview with Oprah Winfrey, some of the work was quickly undone by a response to a throw-away question.
BREAKING: Statement from Buckingham Palace following Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah pic.twitter.com/U05xEX2aka— Lizzie Robinson (@LizzieITV) March 9, 2021
The Duke of Cambridge is, of course, far from the first high profile person to be tripped up by the negative language and framing.
You may remember Volkswagen boss CEO Matthias Muller infamously saying “we are not a criminal band” during the company’s emissions crisis.
Then there is that notorious one-line from President Bill Clinton “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”.
Arguably the most famous example saw then President Richard Nixon introduce his own negative, which he then went on to rebut, creating an unforgettable soundbite.
“People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook”, he told an Associated Press managing editors conference, before adding “Well, I’m not a crook.”
Time will tell where Prince William’s comments sit in this hall of infamy.
But the footage will certainly be added to our collection of ‘how not to do it’ clips we sometimes refer to during our media training courses.
About to face the media? Get your media interview homework off to the best start by downloading your copy of our free media interview preparation eBook.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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