The prince and the PR disaster

There are some interviews that are simply compelling viewing.

And Prince Andrew’s Newsnight interview on Saturday certainly falls into that category.

The Duke of York gave the interview in an attempt to clear his name over abuse allegations.

But it backfired spectacularly as he produced a masterclass in ‘how not to do it’ which is likely to be referenced on media training courses for years to come.

BBC journalist Emily Maitlis, who led the interrogation said at one point there has ‘never been an interview like this before’, and she was right as there were some parts which had to be seen to be believed.

Of course, there are bigger issues with this story than bad PR. But as a media training company, we feel it is pertinent to look at what went wrong in this interview.

 

Lack of empathy

The biggest failing of this interview, which you can watch here,  was the complete lack of empathy.

The Prince showed no sympathy for the women at the centre of the story or offered any real condemnation of his long-term friend and billionaire paedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

“I have no recollection of ever meeting this lady, none whatsoever,” was his comment on Virginia Roberts, who claimed she was forced to have sex with him three times.

Even at the end of the interview when Ms Maitlis teed him up to show some remorse with the open “is there anything you feel has been left unsaid that you would like to say now” question, he still didn’t show any contrition or any awareness of a situation where young women were being abused and trafficked.

He said: “No, I don’t think so. You’ve probably dragged out most of what is required and I am truly grateful for the opportunity to discuss this with you.”

You got the impression that the only person the prince really felt sorry for was himself and that he saw himself as the victim.

It was perhaps not surprising then that Fleet Street's devastating reaction to the interview was led by The Mail on Sunday’s ‘Not one single word of remorse’ splash.

 

Choice of language

One of the parts of the interview which stood out was when the prince described Epstein’s behaviour as ‘unbecoming’.

Ms Maitlis, who struggled to hide her astonishment, replied: “Unbecoming? He was a sex offender.”

The Duke of York then added: “Yeah. I’m sorry, I’m being polite.”

Was it just politeness or an attempt to play down the seriousness of what had happened? Coupled with the lack of remorse you might be inclined to believe the latter.

Social media users quickly made their views clear.  

 

Setting

The programme started with footage of the prince and the journalist walking through the corridors of Buckingham Palace before the duo settled down in a grand room for the interview.

The ornate surroundings added to the impression of the prince being entitled and suggested the interview had been given the royal family seal of approval.

Perhaps the idea was to intimidate the journalist and set some ground rules by having it on home turf.

But it didn’t work and an interview on neutral ground, or in a studio would have provided a better setting.

 

Rambling answers

The interview covered a lot of ground and there were some areas where he didn’t really need to get involved, yet he was drawn into speculative, rambling answers.

For example, asked whether he believed if Epstein had not actually committed suicide, he said: “There again, I’m not going to be able to answer that question. I believe that centres around something to do with a bone in his neck as to whether or not if you commit suicide that bone breaks.

“But I’m not an expert and I have to take what the coroner says and he has ruled it is suicide.”

Good media training teaches spokespeople about the importance of not giving speculative answers and the prince should have known better than to discuss largely discredited conspiracy theories.

Although short answers should be avoided, there are times when less is more.

 

Tactic

Presumably, the idea behind the interview was to draw a line under a 10-year-long saga and rehabilitate the prince’s reputation.

But there seemed to be no real tactic to the interview and a lack of preparation for such a high-profile exchange.

Did he really think that a combination of unlikely excuses (many of which were quickly discredited), bizarre alibis (well handled by Pizza Express on Twitter) and memory issues would win over a sceptical public and help him avoid the difficult questions?

What was the message he wanted to get across?

“I let the side down” seems to be the sound-bite that the media picked up from the interview, while the ‘unbecoming’ comment has also picked up a lot of attention. Not the look he was looking for I would imagine.

Ultimately, the interview served only to reignite the controversy and propel it to a wider audience.

Interestingly, it subsequently emerged the prince’s crisis PR man left the role after advising against the Newsnight interview, which perhaps explains the apparent lack of preparation.  

 

Journalist

We should also talk about Ms Maitlis’ performance in this interview, which is a reminder that spokespeople don’t just need to be wary of reporters who are aggressive or hostile.

Her questions were politely framed, yet forensic and unrelenting and ultimately allowed the prince to tangle himself up with his own words.

 

If Prince Andrew was a CEO he would probably be out of work after this performance. Perhaps this best description of the Newsnight interview came from Charlie Proctor, Editor of Royal Central, who said: "I expected a train wreck. That was a plane crashing into an oil tanker, causing a tsunami, triggering a nuclear explosion level bad."

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our practical crisis communication and media training.

 

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