With the royal family facing a torrent of negative media coverage over the past year, Emelia Hamilton-Russell talks to the Spear’s network to find out exactly what’s going on with their advisers
Private jets, media lawsuits, a rift between the Cambridges and the Sussexes… Princess Eugenie completely missing the point of The Great Gatsby. Things were already looking dodgy for the most exposed family in the UK.
And then the Duke of York did that interview.
A week later, Virginia Giuffre did her own interview with the BBC. It’s her word against his: she says she was trafficked to him as a 17-year-old. He says he has ‘no recollection’ of such a thing. Emily Maitlis points out that having no recollection of an event is different from the event not happening. PRs and ordinary folk around the country cringed into their sofas. Whether the Duke of York did or didn’t, the interview certainly made him look like he did. And that, in the era where public stonings happen on Twitter rather than in the town square, is all that matters.
What do the country’s leading reputation management professionals say about how the royal family could salvage its reputation? As one sage veteran once pointed out, you can only work with what you’ve got.
‘Andrew just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get it,’ says Paul Tweed, a media lawyer with 30 years’ experience who has represented Sarah Ferguson, the duke’s ex-wife, for many years and is a friend of the family. ‘None of us have a perfect memory for dates. So if you’re going to quote dates you’d better make sure you’ve checked your diary and get your facts straight. He did it with no preparation whatsoever.’
Did the duke go against advice? ‘He almost certainly went against the advice of many,’ says Tweed. ‘It was against my advice,’ he adds as he politely escorts me from his office.
The fallout in the media has been brutal. Over the phone from California, where he was working on the Elon Musk defamation case, leading reputation expert Mark Stephens dissects how ‘The Firm’ has dealt with the media onslaught.
‘I think they have done exactly the right thing,’ Stephens tells us. ‘They have put some distance between Andrew and the other individuals.’ But surely that’s not enough? Ste-phens suggests a more stringent solution: ‘What might be sensible would be for the royal family to make him governor-general of some remote and distant outpost – maybe the governor general of the Falklands or something,’ he quips.
Over at Frogmore Cottage, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are waging war against the Mail on Sunday over the publica-tion of a private, handwritten letter sent to Meghan’s father. The case is apparently straightforward: alleged misuse of private information, infringement of copyright and breach of the Data Protection Act 2018.
For Stephens, the case is a ‘stone cold winner’, but others aren’t so sure. ‘I don’t think we completely understand the facts yet,’ says a lawyer from a leading reputation management firm. ‘Who gave it to whom, what the content of the rest of the letter was, that sort of thing. On the face of it, it looks like a very simple case. I can’t believe, though, that that will be the end of the story.’
Most lawyers, however, believe the decision to sue is the wrong one. ‘We are already seeing the publicity for them be-coming more negative,’ declares Stephens. ‘Everything that Meghan and Harry are doing is eventually going to taint them in the eyes of the public. I think what they haven’t understood is the very short-term nature of the victory.’
Another lawyer, who asked not to be named, is of the same opinion. ‘I think it’s a massive mistake,’ he asserts, ‘because she may win, but I just think that the publicity around the case is not going to help her.’
But Meghan is not for turning. ‘She wants to do it her way,’ notes Tweed of the decision to instruct the more aggressive Schillings rather than Harbottle & Lewis, the usual choice of the family. ‘She wants to go for a more progressive, high-profile approach. I mean, they’re paying for the case out of their own money and they’re entitled to do it in any way they like. But what effect that will have on the monarchy is another matter.’
According to Tweed, the prognosis is bleak. ‘Kate and William might have a chance,’ he says. ‘They have a chance f they adopt a sort of Denmark model. They’re closer to the population. But Meghan’s a player. She’s not suited to a Waitrose-Boden lifestyle, she’ll get bored. She wants her life to be like a soap opera. The novelty will wear off.’
Tweed believes Meghan wants to make the monarchy ‘more like Hollywood celebrities’. It’s ‘completely untenable’, he says: ‘You can’t have one half of the monarchy acting the old way and the other acting in a completely new, commercial way. They can’t have the best of both worlds. The monarchy is going to have to rein her in, which I don’t think she’ll welcome. Or she’s got to decide what Harry and her want in relation to where they’re going to live.’
Whether the Sussexes are right to sue is far from clear-cut, though. Withers partner Amber Melville-Brown opined in the Sunday Times that ‘lancing the boil of unlawful media activity through litigation’ might help ‘garner some respect by the public and herald a more healthy relationship with the media’. Others agree. ‘The Mail has a list of people who sue and people who don’t sue,’ says a lawyer with some knowledge of the case. ‘Part of our job is to make sure the media are toeing the line, that they’re not pushing boundaries. The Mail are a massive part of the media. This case could potentially send a strong message to the UK tabloid press.’
Most media lawyers believe strongly that celebrities have a right to a private life. ‘It’s not like you’re either a public figure or you’re not a public figure,’ says one. ‘The balance has to fall somewhere in the middle. We do often knock heads with publishers about that.’ As for whether the case will bring the media into line, most are sceptical. ‘They can afford it – they won’t be cowed,’ one reputation manager with links to the royal family says of the Mail group. ‘The problem with people who comment on these cases is that we don’t know the inside story. There could be a very legitimate reason for a decision that, from the outside, looks like madness.’
Rule number one in reputation management is not to stick your head above the parapet unless absolutely necessary, and it’s a strategy that has served the royal family – by and large – well. But the Sussexes very publicly went off-script when they used an ITV documentary covering their African tour to air some dirty laundry. Prince Harry con-firmed rumours of a rift with his brother, while the duchess fanned speculation about how well – or not – she was fitting into the her new life. ‘Not many people have asked if I’m OK,’ she declared, tearing up.
Throw in the Duke of Edinburgh’s driving woes and you can’t help but wonder if the family’s communications strategy is fit for purpose. ‘It’s working quite well,’ says Stephens. ‘One of the challenges is that it works in silos. The tops of each tree do talk to each other, but there’s no contact be-tween the teams that work for each principal.’ It was this sort of un-joined-up thinking, he believes, that contributed to Andrew’s undoing: he went out on a limb, so to speak.
‘When you step outside of royal protocol you lose that veneer of protection the royal family can offer,’ explains Tweed. ‘The problem… is that it doesn’t just have a negative effect on the individual themselves, the whole family gets dragged in. They have to realise that they are a conglomerate and act accordingly. They need a centralised media strategy.’
Stephens agrees: ‘It’s not a centralised organisation – it’s almost federated. There does need to be some greater co-operation across the piece. That, I think, is an important element. We are bound to see evolution and change, just as we saw in the monarchy in the Sixties and Seventies.’
Intuitively, the idea that the House of Windsor should be-have more like a proper firm, with a unifying message, makes sense. ‘The problem is they are all acting as if they were their own individual brands,’ cautions one PR adviser who has worked inside the royal household. ‘They need someone to sit them all down and tell them, “This is what you’re going to do.”’ The question is, with this sort of precedent, who is brave enough?