This blog will consider these the PR / reputation issues currently being debated, however there’s something far more serious that should be said.
The evil treatment of many girls and young women by a predator who has since killed himself but has left the lives of his victims blighted must be acknowledged as a vile and disgusting act. Trauma, be it physical or psychological, will make us all react differently. I don’t have the level of education to accurately assess the potential consequences of being a victim of Epstein so I’m not going to go into it, but all of those women deserve our sympathy, consideration and discretion.
A senior PR and Communications advisor who I’ve worked adjacent to and continue to respect has commented that “It’s not a bad PR story, it’s his behaviour in the first place” https://twitter.com/wadds/status/1195985610353397761
I feel that this can be seen differently. Of course, Andrew’s behaviour has been rumoured to be substandard for many years, but it’s always bubbled under the surface. There were all sorts of suggestions about what he used to get up to in Kazakhstan in the mid 2000s and other allegations about his behaviour with women but it was rarely international headline news and the current iteration with Epstein appeared to have gone away.
However, it was Andrew’s decision (and it would appear the buck stopped with him) to put himself on a BBC News interview that directly made this into a much bigger story. He could have kept his head down and got on with things and waited for some of this to go away.
This therefore is a reputational crisis created by the execution of a suboptimal PR strategy that had been designed to persuade a host of audiences that Andrew was a wrongly accused and misunderstood man.
Why did he do the interview?
Most reputation focused communications and PR professionals would recognise the decision to film an interview with BBC Newsnight when the principal is under accusation, especially if it really was a case of “ask me anything”, as a high risk strategy. In this case, especially so as Andrew could not deny he had repeatedly consorted with (convicted sex offender) Epstein, stayed at his house, attended social functions etc. Why therefore would Andrew open himself up to potentially reputationally fatal public interrogation?
Men (nearly always men) like Andrew do not lack confidence in their own ability. They are rarely told “no” by anyone and this creates – especially in an environment like a Royal Family where there are few downsides to failure – a culture of invincibility.
CEOs and political leaders, whilst not always the beneficiaries of inherited privilege will often have a lot of confidence in their own ability, because they’ve got to the top. When again combined with few people daring to say “no” to them mistakes can be made.
This creates 2 options for the first consideration, all of which is based on Andrew’s false assumption that he’s a brilliant and strategic communicator with a unique and powerful charisma that can persuade his audience of his position:
a) He feels unfairly wronged and wanted the opportunity to put the record straight, believing that a man such as he would be able to convince his audience of his innocence and that the more lurid accusations simply did not happen
b) He has something to hide but he believes that force of personality and a unique charisma will allow him to charm both the interviewer and audience into submission. Think Bill Clinton or Silvio Berlusconi or Boris Johnson. Obviously dodgy guys across various behaviour considerations but gifted communicators who could get out of a jam through oratory, a wink and a smile. And the strong support of a significant % of the population who would vote for a pig if it was the confirmed candidate for a political party
However, maybe there’s a longer game being played. There are alternative classical PR rationales for this sort of interview
1. You know there’s more bad stuff on the way. Get out in front of it to control the agenda
2. Do a deal with a media company. Don’t publish “x” and I will give you a full no holds barred interview on something else – Tiger Woods was well known in the media world for this before we all got to know about his off course performance.
3. Start the rebuilding process by lancing the boil and asking for forgiveness. Again, Woods is a good example but there are plenty of others in both political, sporting and corporate life. “I did it wrong. Hands up. I’m sorry”.
What did the BBC want to get out of the interview?
It appears clear that Andrew believed that he could turn this opportunity into a success.
Well done to the BBC team for giving him this perception. They baited the hook very nicely. It should be made clear here that no media platform ever wants to offer anyone an opportunity to “set the record straight”. Media firms want a number of results from this sort of operation:
1. Get as many eyeballs on their platform as possible
2. Exert editorial control so as to ensure there are no accusations of partiality
The last point is vital for learnings. This was not an opportunity for Andrew to get his point of view across – no matter what was said in advance. The prevailing external dynamic is that Andrew may well have been involved in criminal activity and has certainly consorted with a known felon. Therefore the entire focus of the interview was always going to focus on this. There was an extremely limited opportunity to consider wider issues. The interview only happened because of the accusations and these accusations were always going to be the focus of the interview.
The media don’t care and will not listen to any attempts to mitigate or bring in “what abouts”. The only thing the BBC cared about is whether Andrew was involved in the criminal trafficking and sexual abuse of women and girls.
Whether the media genuinely want to search for “the truth” is too philosophical a question for here. I passionately believe that we need a free media to ask questions of the powerful and that they often do. I’m perhaps a little cynical after 18 years and I’d suggest that’s not always the case.
Andrew clearly did not understand this dynamic and was not ready for what was effectively a criminal cross examination. Not a friendly chat.
What was he trying to do?
20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing. After watching the interview through twice I think it’s fair to say that Andrew lacks the skills, intelligence, charisma, empathy and ability to effectively articulate his thoughts in a manner that would allow him to come out of an encounter with a neutral perception, let alone a positive.
Of course I’m not objective. I’m a “small r” republican (“Paddy the Republican” means something else) and I’ve always hated inherited privilege. Andrew lived down to all my prejudices. The interview itself was a total shit show.
The way he managed the interview demonstrated he’s not used to being questioned and lacks the wit to fence in any way with a sophisticated interrogator such as Emily Maitlis. There should have been hours of practice with his advisors to get him ready to answer the obvious questions with well prepared lines. He should have been able to keep his facial expressions neutral. He should have been able to be in some way relatable to his audience. These skills can be acquired with both a lot of practice, but also a level of humility to engage with your advisors and accept that maybe you don’t know everything.
Above all there should have been an acknowledgement that Epstein was a monster and that his victims deserve sympathy, empathy, justice and discretion.
Secondly there should have been a fundamental denial of the basic accusations made about him. “[looking directly at Maitlis and making eye contact] No. That definitely did not happen. I am deeply sympathetic to the victims of Epstein and the trauma he inflicted on them but I am categorical in my denial of this accusation” – or something like that. Don’t mention criminal activity directly in association with your behaviour whilst on camera, but also fundamentally deny it.
If the interview was meant to be an opportunity to convince the public at large that there was no chance he had been party to the trafficking of women or had raped an underage girl or only just of age woman, then the interview and associated PR strategy was a failure.
An alternative rationale for the interview?
The entire interview felt like Andrew wanted to make it a distraction from the issues faced by the victims of Epstein’s crimes and was an attempt to make Andrew look like the victim of the piece.
The arguments over detail such as “It was a shooting party”, “I can’t sweat”, “I don’t party” “positive act” or “Pizza Express” looked suspiciously like trying to degrade the testimony of his accuser(s) rather than truly make it fundamentally clear that he had not had sex with an illegally trafficked minor.
The objective of this approach could be to place doubt in the minds of the audience of the accuracy of witness testimony. If she had got these details wrong, how could she be trusted to know if she had been the beneficiary of a “positive act” (a description that is boorishly masculine and lacking in empathy as pointed out by my wife) by HRH Prince Andrew the Duke of York?
The major reputational challenge about this approach is that it makes it clear that you have a case to answer. It’s a legal defence tactic, not a reputation management defence, because Andrew is attempting to denigrate his detractors, not demonstrate his own purity.
This approach creates the impression that Andrew knows that he is morally guilty but thinks he can either keep it out of court, or he and his team already preparing for legal action.
Andrew’s interaction with Maitlis was also interesting. There were a few small details he jumped on with glee mixed with a huffy and patronising tone of reproach that was deeply unsympathetic. His correction from a “birthday party” to “a fairly normal shooting party” etc that made it appear that he was delighted to be able to get on the front foot and tell her she was wrong about something.
The problem with this approach is that is made the contrast when he was asked some of the really difficult stuff extremely clear. More monotone. More hesitant. Far less definite and sure of himself. It made him look guilty.
If the circumstance was slightly different and he was being cross examined by a barrister in the Old Bailey I don’t think the jury would have found him a particularly credible or sympathetic witness. In particular there was a cough and inability to speak clearly when attempting to answer a particularly difficult question was pure Hollywood melodrama.
This was as sub optimal a performance in an interview as I’ve seen in my life. Unsympathetic, petty, possibly sexist, certainly disdainful of the concept of being criticised.
Time will tell how successful he’s been. In the short term, I think he’s embarrassed himself and his family. He will have chosen and been given permission to record the interview in a Royal Palace, thereby making this not just about Andrew but the institution of the Monarch and Royal Family – although that might be my prejudices and those of my own echo chamber.
Conversely, the deference generally given to both institutions may well have played in his favour. He wasn’t asked directly “Did you abuse an underage girl?” There were many wounding engagements but no killer blow. Would a simple member of the public, or a corporate executive have been afforded such care?
The decision to go public has turned this into a much bigger deal that it might have been. By proactively engaging with one of the world’s most significant media organisations, Andrew has lost the right to privacy. Dozens of investigative journalists around the world are looking for the big Andrew story. There’s plenty of whispers out there as well. Plenty of copy to be rehashed and reshaped to paint a negative picture of a priapic and not particularly intelligence Prince who thought he could do whatever he wanted and there would be no consequences.
There are already negative consequences with KPMG pulling out of a charity partnership that Andrew had clearly thought would be part of his road to redemption.
In addition as a direct result of the interview there are now calls from further victims of Epstein that Andrew should come to the US to give evidence under oath and potentially be investigated under criminal charges
Tactically Maitlis played a blinder. Quiet, calm, mostly undemonstrative, she let Andrew speak and thereby embarrass himself. I’ve seen this time and time again. A careful, respectful, intelligent female journalist will allow a successful male interview subject to incriminate themselves because “they have to be listened to” or that “they have to win the argument” and that “they can’t lose to a woman”.
Andrew could have learned from her in all sorts of ways. Physical comportment. Style and tone. Empathy and sympathy. Listening. Engaging. That he did not do well in any of these things means he was either poorly prepared or he lacks the skill sets to manage this sort of operation, which means someone should have said to him, “Do. Not. Do. This.”
For other princes (even corporate ones) the lessons are pretty clear:
a) Be as objective as possible about how you come across to a general audience, not your own bubble. The qualities that got you where you are may not be those that are particularly attractive to the general populace. Yes Mr Zukerberg, I’m looking at you.
b) Be very clear about why you are doing the interview and what you want to get out of it
c) Be very clear about why the media organisation is doing it and what they want to get our of it. They will control the context, they will ask the questions. They don’t care what you have to say.
Unless the media has a specific ongoing interest in you and your activities the only thing they are interested in is the scandal(s). If you’re not on their usual beat, they have limited interest in you and will wonder why you want to engage with them – in their mindset it can only be to limit the damage of either previous scandals or something that might be about to break.
Therefore they don’t care about your business or the issues you want to talk about. They want to know about the bad stuff.
d) Be aware of the potential downside if you cock it up and how that compares to the upside.
e) Short term consequences of media engagement should be balanced by long term reputation consideration. just because you achieve short term wins does not mean that the operation will be net positive over a longer period.
f) Listen to the advice of people that have professional experience in the subject. Listen to those that question you more than those that always say “what a brilliant idea sir; there’s no chance of a trap or encirclement in that very tight valley over which we have patchy intelligence”.
This is not to say that you should not make your own decision but be aware of the consequences and bigger picture. Take a systemic approach to risk management. Do not operate on gut feeling and short term rationale.
g) Get used to answering tough questions asked unsympathetically and if you need to engage in a nuanced conversation be very careful that the other side will understand it
h) Don’t engage in whataboutism – especially if you believe you are being treated unfairly. The journalist or stakeholder only care about the specific allegations made. Not the wider subjects that you believe to be important. Clouding the water with generalised accusations makes you look like a criminal. If you are going to raise mitigating issues be very specific and have objective evidence to hand.
i) Modulate your tone from aggressive risktaking corporate leader to thoughtful, sympathetic corporate leader.
j) Practice media scenarios till your fingers bleed.
I’m not sure how many of these were considered before the interview. I suspect that Andrew’s film will be worked into multiple communications training exercises for years to come and PR students will be warned, “don’t forget Prince Andrew”.
Unless of course he’s expunged from history. The British Royal Family can be quite good at that.