The Royals, lags in the law and the perils of social media have all occupied the thoughts of the top reputation protection lawyers and PR advisers in the land, says Rasika Sittamparam
It’s an apposite time to publish the Spear’s Reputation Managers Index. Almost all of the top-flight lawyers and PR advisers who spoke to our Research Unit had strong views about the communications crisis that has enveloped the Royal Family in recent weeks. And some were willing to share them – discreetly, of course.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have elected to take on the Mail on Sunday in a privacy action that is likely to unfold over the course of this year.
In a survey of Spear’s Index interviewees, the majority thought that the Sussexes could emerge victorious. However, when it comes to reputation management, things are seldom simple: two-thirds of survey respondents would not have endorsed the decision to go ahead in the first place.
Any victory was likely to be a pyrrhic one, said one senior reputation manager, who questioned whether it was even possible to ‘win’, since the legal action was likely to turn into a debacle.
Another doubted that the matter would ever reach a conclusion. Being in a courtroom and under oath ‘is a very dangerous place for a Royal to be,’ he said. ‘I hope they see sense and come to some sort of agreement before that.’
He added that the key takeaway from the Prince Andrew’s recent reputational woes was that ‘if you don’t need to have a high profile spat, then don’t have one.’
‘I don’t think it’s a good strategy,’ opined another reputation manager, who likened the decision to a ‘temper tantrum’ from young royals who ‘seem to have a tin ear for PR missteps.
’This was ‘a bad decision’ straight out of ‘an American playbook’, said another of the experts who spoke to Spear’s. ‘It takes everything up a notch. Much better to deal with carrots rather than sticks.’
There were, however, dissenting voices who lauded the couple’s move. One top lawyer said, simply: ‘Enough is enough.’
We also asked interviewees for their assessment of libel and privacy law in the UK. There was widespread disapproval, with the most common criticism being that legislation was way behind our new, digital reality.
Appropriately, our list of the Top Ten Reputation Management Lawyers features several people with a royal connection. Schillings – the firm acting on behalf of the Sussexes in their case against the newspaper – is represented by Jenny Afia, who has been a stalwart of our premier cru since 2015. For Harbottle & Lewis, lawyers to the Queen, partners Gerrard Tyrrell and John Kelly appear once again thanks to their continued sterling performance.
It is no mean feat to break into a Top Ten populated by such established names, but one person has managed it.
Dan Tench – who has prepared senior figures for appearances before Parliamentary Select Committees – takes up the slot previously occupied by Amber Melville-Brown. Her exit from our UK-centric Index reflects a recent move to New York, where she now heads up the media and reputation team at Withers.
In the Top Recommended section, Jo Sanders – who has moved from Harbottle, and could be considered Melville-Brown’s replacement at Withers in London – is a new entry. She is joined by other new faces, including Jon Oakley (Simkins) and Alex McCready, whose recent switch to Vardags was hailed as a bold step and a great move by one of her peers.
As far as our Reputation Managers Top Ten is concerned, there is more movement. Arlo Brady should be the first port of call for HNWs considering representation from freuds, while former News of the World editor Phil Hall’s work with Cliff Richard at his firm PHA Group is acknowledged.
He should not, however, be confused with his namesake. Like Phil Hall, Philip Hall is another new entry into the Top Ten (what are the chances?) as he heads up Portland’s newly revamped private client offering.
In the Top Recommended section, there is a consistency of themes. There is another representative from Portland’s new team in the form of Arabist Patrick Forbes and another former newspaper editor in the shape of David Yelland (late of the Sun and now of Kitchen Table Partners).
There are more royal connections, too.
We profile both Sara Latham – who has worked with Hillary Clinton and has recently left her role as communications secretary to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex last week – and Jason Stein. Stein worked with Amber Rudd and recently joined Finsbury, the agency founded by her brother Roland. But he is perhaps best known for an association with Prince Andrew.
At the end of last year it was reported that Stein had left his post with the prince after cautioning against what will now be forever known as ‘that interview’ with Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis. At the moment, Stein’s departure looks like a testament to his good judgement.
It is a commodity that can sometimes appear to be in short supply when it comes to certain high-profile figures’ dealings with the press. But, as one of the reputation managers in this index notes, there are few better exemplars of it than the mother of the man who precipitated Stein’s decision.
‘The Queen’s handling of the media has always been amazing,’ he said. ‘She could give the rest of the Royal Family the best advice of anyone.’
With additional reporting by Arun Kakar and Emelia Hamilton-Russell. Editing by Edwin Smith
Top 10 reputation lawyers
- Jenny Afia Schillings
- Gideon Benaim Simkins
- Dominic Crossley Payne Hicks Beach
- David Engel Addleshaw Goddard
- John Kelly Harbottle & Lewis
- Niri Shan Taylor Wessing
- Mark Stephens Howard Kennedy
- Nigel Tait Carter-Ruck
- Dan Tench CMS
- Gerrard Tyrrell Harbottle & Lewis
Top 10 reputation managers
- Arlo Brady freuds
- Andrew Grant Tulchan
- Phil Hall The PHA Group
- Philip Hall Portland Communications
- Jonathan Hawker Slate Campaigns
- Andrew Honnor Greenbrook
- Stuart Leach Montfort Communications
- Charles Lewington Hanover
- David McDonough Sanctuary Counsel
- Ed Williams Edelman