Could There Have Been a Better Outcome for the Embattled Duke of York?
11/22/19 – – Making good decisions is at the heart of crisis response. Successfully weathering a reputational storm is all about deciding what to do, what to say and where to say it. Last Saturday, Prince Andrew made a very bad decision when he agreed to sit down with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis for a full-hour, no-holds-barred interview focused on his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein.
If you’ve read The Crisis Preparedness Quotient or are a regular reader of this blog, you know how important I believe it is for crisis communicators to “go to school” on other people’s crises. So, what can we learn from the embattled Duke of York’s now infamous interview?
Defining Realistic Objectives
When you are a member of the Royal Family and are accused of sexually assaulting an underage girl, it’s not hard to get a media interview. The same holds true for companies and individuals facing sensational, newsworthy charges. The question is, how should you respond to the tsunami of reporter requests sure to come your way? There will always be many factors influencing your media strategy, but I think it’s best to start by determining what you hope to achieve by accepting the invitation. What is your objective?
My guess is that frustration and desperation were building as Prince Andrew’s world was shaken by the shame of his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein (that lasted well beyond Epstein’s conviction as a sexual predator) and the graphic allegations made against him by Virginia Giuffre. In such situations, there is intense pressure to “set the record straight,” “tell your side of the story,” “do something!” Attorneys advocate silence while friends and family encourage aggressive media campaigns. It’s hard, but necessary, in these circumstances to block out the noise and be realistic about what you can achieve by going in front of the cameras.
If Prince Andrew’s objective in saying yes to BBC Newsnight was to convince listeners of his innocence and get back control of his life, he and those around him were being very unrealistic. Given the severity of the charges against him and the silliness of the explanations he offers in his defense, the decision to do the interview also reflects breathtaking levels of arrogance and self-importance.
Evaluating Risk & Reward
Another useful exercise to help weigh the benefits of media exposure during a crisis is to debate the relative risks and rewards of a particular interview request. Given the explosive, embarrassing subject matter of the interview (it was agreed upon that the Epstein affair would be the only focus of the hour), it’s hard to believe that anyone would argue that the risks of such an uncontrolled, unpredictable encounter — including potential criminal exposure — could be trumped by any potential rewards. Again, Prince Andrew’s objectives had to be so unrealistic that he and his advisors were willing to live with (or were blind to) the severe level of risk.
Media Training Informs Decision Making
Before accepting media requests during a crisis, response training sessions that include videotaped mock interviews are helpful in not only preparing spokespeople but also in determining the likelihood of success in achieving your objectives. In other words, use these dry runs to help you decide whether to accept or decline media invitations. If what you are seeing on your screen is not persuasive, believable and likeable, don’t make the mistake of thinking it will be any different when you go live with a real reporter.
Who knows if Prince Andrew’s advisors put him through media training for his ill-fated BBC Newsnight appearance. If they did (and if they were realistic) they would have seen the pompous, detached, arrogant Duke of York who ultimately sat across from Emily Maitlis expressing only modest regret for his relationship with Epstein (whose horrific conduct he described as “unbecoming”) and absolutely no empathy for the victims of his extraordinary abuse.
Just how bad was his performance? An opinion survey conducted for The Times found that only six percent of UK viewers believed that Prince Andrew was being truthful; 51 percent did not believe him and 43 percent didn’t know whether to believe him or not. Charlie Proctor, editor of the “Royal Central” website, tweeted, “I expected a train wreck . . . That was a plane crashing into an oil tanker, causing a tsunami, triggering a nuclear explosion level bad.”
And one very important viewer who lives in Buckingham Palace was particularly turned off. In fact, public reaction to the interview was so universally negative, the Duke of York announced that he would “step back from public duties for the foreseeable future.” In his forced written statement, he did a lot better than in his interview:
“I continue to unequivocally regret my ill-judged association with Jeffrey Epstein. His suicide has left many unanswered questions, particularly for his victims, and I deeply sympathise with everyone who has been affected and wants some form of closure. I can only hope that, in time, they will be able to rebuild their lives. Of course, I am willing to help any appropriate law enforcement agency with their investigations, if required.”
The Prince’s case study offers a textbook example of bad decision making under fire. Media interviews are easy to get in the eye of a storm. Assess the benefits of all invitations with a focus on objectives, an analysis of risk and reward, and a realistic appraisal of how you will do in front of the camera. Before saying yes to a reporter, ask yourself, “will you break through, will you ring true, and will the audience like you?” Unfortunately for Prince Andrew, the answers to those questions were no, no and no.