Let me start by declaring an interest: I believe the monarchy should be abolished and that the UK won’t become a mature democracy unless and until it gets rid of the royals, although I appreciate the enormous sacrifice the queen has made in service of her country and would only make this long overdue constitutional change at the end of her reign.
So the republican part of me was pleased that prince Andrew made such a hash of his Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis. But the media trainer in me was appalled that someone should perform so badly. Or as one royal watcher put it:
“I was expecting a train crash. That was a plane crashing into an oil tanker, causing a tsunami, triggering a nuclear explosion level bad.”Charlie Proctor, Royal Central website editor.
The purpose of this post then is to help you avoid a similar nuclear explosion level bad interview should you find yourself in a bunker like the prince.
People with controversies swirling around them do interviews in an attempt to put the record straight and, in doing so, rescue their reputations. But if, as a result, records ends up wonkier and reputations more tattered, then saying nothing is probably the better option – the least said soonest mended approach as it were. It’s a tough call though, not least because you have to factor in not only what you say in response to the questions asked – the content – but how you say it – the tone. And you’ve got to get both right. Plenty of innocent interviewees have been found guilty in the court of public opinion not on factual but on tonal grounds. I should add at this point that although Andrew is being judged on both counts I’m going to limit my comments here to matters of tone because none of us (him and his alleged victim aside) has any way of telling his absolute guilt or innocence.
Being tonally correct means saying you’re sorry even though you may think you have nothing to apologise for. Being tonally correct means conceding some ground. And it means showing compassion.
Show some compassion
It might not have got him off the rap entirely, but imagine how much better it would’ve been had Andrew felt able to acknowledge right at the start of the interview that he appreciated his discomfort was nothing compared to the pain and suffering felt by the victims of sexual abuse. That he couldn’t begin to imagine how awful that would be. That by speaking he wasn’t in any way, shape or form trying to belittle or undermine those who’d experienced it.
And being truly compassionate extends beyond victims to perpetrators. So Andrew should next have nodded to the anguish that led his friend, Jeffrey Epstein, to take his own life and to the grief felt by the financier’s close friends and family.
Concede some ground
When you’re under attack defending every inch of ground seems instinctively like the right thing to do. It rarely is. In military metaphors and media interviews if the ground you’re on is dodgy then pull back to safer ground. To a position that is easier to defend. And concede it voluntarily. Don’t be forced to retreat. Because otherwise there’ll be casualties. A bloodied reputation. What Andrew should have said more plainly than he did, is something like this:
“I was a poor judge of character. With hindsight I was wrong to count on him as a friend. Again with hindsight, I was wrong to see him (as we often see our friends however badly chosen) through rose-tinted spectacles. And out of misguided loyalty I was wrong not to have ended that friendship much sooner.”
Note the number of wrongs in the preceding paragraph. I accept, of course, that three wrongs don’t make a proverbial right. But repeating a point at least that many times reinforces it and prepares the ground tonally for the next step…
Now because you’ve conceded you were wrong, wrong, wrong you can say you’re sorry, sorry, sorry reinforcing that point in a similar fashion. You’re sorry that while you personally saw nothing untoward, the hugely disturbing fact remains Epstein abused girls and young women. You’re sorry that you were such a poor judge of character (whilst adding that abusers go to great lengths to hide their behaviour from those around them). You’re sorry that you didn’t end the friendship sooner. Sorry that by association the royal family has been tarnished. Sorry, especially, that your own daughters have been affected. Sorry that you haven’t on this occasion upheld the extremely high standards demanded of royals.
Incidentally, you should never ask for pity – certainly not explicitly. Show pity for others and others, if they think you deserve it, will show pity for you. Pity has to be earned. And while we’re on the subject of pity, in crisis communications (and this certainly qualifies as that) pity is one of the three Ps. The other two are praise and promise. So Andrew might also have added his praise for the hard work and diligence of those investigating Epstein’s crimes and promised to do all he can to assist those inquiries. Which begs a follow up question (and did from Emily Maitlis): so you’d be happy to travel to the US and speak to the FBI if necessary? To which there is but one short response: “Yes, of course. I want to help and I have nothing to hide.”
Unless you do. In which case you’ve got to be a great liar. Hope there’s no smoking gun. Or exercise your right to remain silent. Which brings us right back to where we started and the decision to do the interview in the first place. We’re led to believe Andrew’s spin doctor resigned after just a few weeks in the role because his advice to the prince was to take the fifth as the Americans might say.
So what would my advice have been? If I thought the prince could manage the interview process as I’ve outlined above and proved he could do it during some realistic rehearsals (with me playing the role of Maitlas) then I’d have told him to ask mum. If he couldn’t, then I’d have told him to keep mum. As it is, he didn’t seek my help and, like I said, I’m a republican so there’ll be two heads on pikes outside Buckingham Palace: mine and his. My Aunty Dee always said I looked a bit like him and we’re about the same age. So if you’re passing I’ll be the one mouthing Two Princes by the Spin Doctors.
I ain’t got no future or a family treeThe Spin Doctors – Two Princes
But I know what a prince and lover ought to be
Richard Uridge facilitates ACM Training’s media and communications workshops.