Meghan’s and Harry’s Declaration of Independence Sets Off a Crisis within the British Royal Family
1/13/20 – – Marriage-related reputational storms are nothing new for the British Royal Family. But the tempest raging in the wake of last week’s announcement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex of their intentions “to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent” is developing into a crisis of historic proportions within the House of Windsor.
While the rarified world of royalty has little in common with corporate life, there are important crisis management lessons to be learned from this unfolding international drama. In the context of what has been labeled “Megxit” by British media, I’d like to focus on the propensity of journalists and commentators covering all types of crises to compromise the impartiality of their reporting by prematurely pronouncing villains and victims.
Have you chosen sides? Are you sympathetic to Harry’s and Meghan’s desire to follow their own path and maximize the potential of their brand? Or do you view their actions as narcissistic and disrespectful of venerable traditions? Has the American Ms. Markle been a victim of the Crown’s archaic, perhaps racist ways? Or is she a clever temptress set on cashing in without regard for her husband’s family ties or the feelings of the British people?
Chances are good that your point of view has been influenced by where you’re getting your news.
Here in the United States, reporters have been generally favorable to the freedom-longing Duke and Duchess of Sussex, characterizing the Queen as rigid and the British press as unrelenting. Even Oprah got into the story, praising the couple’s awareness of the synergistic opportunities of branding and philanthropy. And an opinion piece by British author Afua Hirsch in the January 9 New York Times titled “Black Britons Know Why Meghan Markle Wants Out” made the powerful charge that, “No matter how beautiful you are, whom you marry, what palaces you occupy, charities you support, how faithful you are, how much money you accumulate or what good deeds you perform, in this society racism will still follow you.”
Across the pond, it’s been a very different story. While the Queen’s responses have been measured — “My family and I are entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new life as a young family. Although we would have preferred them to remain full-time working Members of the Royal Family, we respect and understand their wish to live a more independent life as a family while remaining a valued part of my family” — this commentary from the Daily Mail is typical of the overwhelmingly critical coverage in the U.K.:
It’s almost as if nothing matters to this couple apart from their own immediate happiness and gratification, as though they are incapable of seeing beyond their own little bubble of privilege.
In Chapter 5 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Culpability and Crises: Proclaiming Villains and Victims”) we discuss how quickly companies and individuals navigating a crisis are slotted by reporters into the roles of villains or victims. Where you end up depends on a number of factors, including the reputation you’ve established heading into the storm. Reporters, even before all the facts of a story are known, want to tell readers and viewers who the bad guys and good guys are. That news approach may not be what is taught in journalism school, but that’s reality. So, to be prepared for crises you have to pay attention — day by day — to how you’re portrayed online (I call this your “Google footprint”) and how you’re perceived by your stakeholders, including employees, customers, communities and investors.
Playing the Role of Victim
Prior to last week’s announcement and the launch of their new website, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were aggressively making their case for victimhood.
In October, they filed a lawsuit against the Mail on Sunday tabloid claiming a pattern of “false” and “deliberately derogative” coverage. Emotionally carving out the victim role for his wife and himself, Harry justified the legal action:
I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditised to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces . . . Unfortunately, my wife has become one of the latest victims of a British tabloid press that wages campaigns against individuals with no thought to the consequences – a ruthless campaign that has escalated over the past year, throughout her pregnancy and while raising our newborn son.
And in a documentary by British broadcaster ITV filmed during the couple’s recent visit to Africa, Meghan admitted that royal life has been “hard,” explaining, “I never thought that this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair, and that’s the part that’s really hard to reconcile.”
They make a compelling case against the status quo. But will the royal couple be able to maintain residences in Canada and Los Angeles, make big bucks off their “Sussex Royal” trademark, keep a healthy relationship with the Crown and avoid the destructive label of villains?
The odds and history are against them.
American Woman, Get Away from Me!
Reporters, in their rush to proclaim villains and victims, are prone to stereotyping and typecasting. Unfortunately for Harry and Meghan, the British people and media feel like they’ve seen this play before, are familiar with the flawed main characters, and know that things don’t end well.
We’re all aware of the painful story of King Edward III’s abdication in 1936. He gave up the throne after just 326 days to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived the rest of their lives in the Bahamas and the United States without much purpose or honor. As New York Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd observed this weekend:
How can the queen and Prince Philip and Prince Charles possibly understand the desire of Meghan and Harry to rebrand as a Goopish lifestyle enterprise? The news that they have applied to trademark hundreds of items, from socks to hoodies, under the “Sussex Royal” logo makes Wallis Simpson’s exile in the Bahamas, spent matching the color on the walls to her face powder, seem positively monastic . . . Can you really call yourself “financially independent” when all you’re doing is cashing in on the royal name?
And in the Commonwealth country of Canada — where, according to friends, Meghan has said her family will live until Donald Trump is out of office and they can move to Los Angeles — the nation is still mourning the trade in 1988 that sent Canadian hockey icon Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. Canadians blame the Great Gretzky’s marriage to American actress (and Los Angeles resident) Janet Jones for their loss of a national treasure. Here’s how the Globe and Mail remembered things in an editorial headlined “Gretzky: He Was the Greatest and He Was Ours” on the 25th anniversary of the trade:
It was Gretzky’s trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings 25 years ago this week — amidst charges of everything from greed to deceit to suggestions his wife, Janet, was hockey’s Yoko Ono — that inspired some ill-considered expansion into alien markets (Anaheim, San Jose, Dallas, Phoenix, Tampa, Miami, Nashville).
According to our friends up north, an American “B” actress best remembered for her role in “Police Academy 5 – Assignment: Miami Beach” threw the Earth off its axis and screwed up the National Hockey League! How can Meghan Markle keep from being lumped in with (fairly or unfairly) American “villains” Wallis Simpson, Janet Jones and Yoko Ono (Yoko was born in Japan, but spent much time growing up in Manhattan with her banker father and attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville)?
So no, I don’t think things, especially in the U.K., will go smoothly for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Perhaps the Canadian rock band The Guess Who captured the British mindset (and Meghan’s daunting challenge) best in their 1970 hit “American Woman.” Sing along with me:
American woman, get away from me
American woman, mama, let me be
Don’t come a-knockin’ around my door
Don’t wanna see your shadow no more
Coloured lights can hypnotize
Sparkle someone else’s eyes
Now woman, I said get away
American woman, listen what I say, hey
I don’t know if the Queen has a play list. But if we see her wearing headphones and mouthing these words, we’ll know she buys into The Guess Who’s anthem and has no use for the Sussex Royal brand:
You’re no good for me
I’m no good for you
Gonna look you right in the eye
Tell you what I’m gonna do
You know I’m gonna leave
You know I’m gonna go
You know I’m gonna leave
You know I’m gonna go, woman
I’m gonna leave ya, woman
Goodbye, American woman…