When You're in a Hole, Stop Digging
The Prince Andrew story makes for an interesting case study in public relations - one that makes you question how the public thinks.
Last summer, when allegations first broke that he had sex with a teenager, there was a denial from him and the story seemed to go away, at least from the headlines. A week and a half ago, he did an extended interview on British television, and that touched off such a fuss that he was stripped of his royal duties. Obviously talking about what happened (or didn't happen) made his situation worse.
In fairness though, it wasn't just talking about the controversy, it was how he talked about it, proving once again the importance of being prepared when you speak to the media.
The Interview Was a Train Wreck
By now most of the world has heard about the problems Prince Andrew has got himself into and it keeps getting worse for the Duke of York.
Let’s review class. This summer it was revealed he was a friend of the late Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted sex offender. Then one of Epstein’s victims told the media she was offered up for sex with Andrew in 2001. A photo of Andrew and the then 17-year-old went viral in the media and on the internet.
Around ten days ago, Andrew, for some unknown reason, decided to do a one-on-one interview on British television to “set the record straight”. It didn’t end well for Andrew, who had a seemingly tone-deaf focus on himself and appeared to care very little about Epstein’s victims. Throw in some bad body language and strange facial expressions and you have all the makings of a train wreck interview, which it was.
Just a few days later, he was called in to see the Queen and his older brother Prince Charles and was told he wouldn’t be representing the royal family anymore. Plans for his 60th birthday party in February have been scaled back too.
If you had “Senior member of Royal Family accused of having sex with a 17-year old, after being offered to him by a convicted sex offender” on your bingo card at the start of the year - you win.
Lance Armstrong > Prince Andrew
When the allegations first broke, media outlets across Britain asked for the type of interview that Andrew eventually agreed to and did a week and a half ago.
Not that I was asked by the Royal Family what he should do, but my advice would have been simple – lay low for longer. There’s an old phrase in the PR game – when you’re in a hole, stop digging.
What Prince Andrew should have done was cancelled as many appearances as possible, go on a long holiday and refuse to say anything more than he already had about the allegations when they first came out. Under no circumstances should he have done a sit-down interview, where every question from the reporter was fair game.
One-on-one sit-downs can work well for the person who is trying to clear their name. They don’t have to deal with a pack of reporters yelling questions at them from different angles. They have far more control over the interview’s outcome, but only if they’re fully prepared for every question they’re going to get.
In January 2013, Oprah interviewed Lance Armstrong. For the first time he admitted to using steroids to help his cycling career. Oprah had 112 questions prepared for Armstrong and used most of them. The interview that aired on television was actually on two separate nights and went on for over two hours. I remember how good Armstrong was and how well he answered every question. His problem was, he had lied about steroid use for far too long and even though he was honest and forthcoming in the interview, he had lied for too many years to make a real difference.
Preparation is Everything
Nobody really talked about the preparation Armstrong went through for the interview with Oprah, but I’m sure it was extensive, judging by the way he handled the questions during the lengthy interview.
I’m pretty sure he spent hours working with media trainers, image consultants, lawyers and others prepping for the interview. There were millions of dollars on the line and it was Armstrong’s job to make his steroid confession, but do it in a way to try to avoid a fatal blow to his reputation and the future of his foundation. I’m not sure he accomplished either.
In the case of Prince Andrew, I didn’t watch the entire interview, but saw enough to see somebody who wasn’t really prepared to do an interview that would clear his name and help his reputation. Any media trainer in the world would have drilled it into his head to show remorse for the victims and come up with reasons why he didn’t disassociate himself from Epstein much sooner than he did. Saying he stayed at Epstein’s place in New York after Epstein faced sex charges because it was “convenient” certainly wasn’t the right answer either.
Maybe it was ego that led to him doing the interview, maybe it was because the Queen is 93 years old and doesn’t have the same grip on her family that she used to, or perhaps it was because some really good PR people aren’t with the Royal Family anymore. Regardless, in the situation Andrew was in, he needed to be really, really good and have arguments and information that would have made people think that perhaps he wasn’t guilty of doing some of the things that have been alleged.
He didn’t do any of that and now he’s paying the price. Sometimes when the media comes calling, it’s better to just say no.
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