“My reputation is under increasing and now unbearable pressure. I have a communications team but they don’t really understand the weight of my responsibility. I think I need their help, but they’re telling me in so many words to do….very little. (Why do I pay them?) I’m a natural leader and charismatic communicator. I can blast my way out of this and prove to the world that I’ve done nothing wrong. ‘A couple of articles, tweets and a radio interview’, you say? I don’t think so. Bring out the cameras. We’ll do it in the giant room in the massive palace – perfect.”

It doesn’t really matter if you are a senior royal, a FTSE 100 CEO, a high net worth individual or the head of a complex public or military organisation, when a crisis breaks, usually through the media, if you haven’t done the preparatory work your reputation will suffer more than if you had. This preparation will have walked you through a number of graduated response options few of which would have been ‘shout from the rooftops’. And here’s why.

First, if you are going to come out fighting, you need to be very, very sure of your facts. What exactly happened all those years ago? If you’re not sure or can’t remember then you are already on the back foot. It will expose one of the universal truths of communications; that there is a gap between what the operator(s) and communicators of any given organisation are doing, or the ‘say/do’ gap as it’s sometimes known. If this gap isn’t closed then any subsequent words will either sound like spin (if the organisation isn’t doing anything to fix the situation) or worse, disingenuous/dishonest (if the crisis was born of poor actions). If you have done something (very) foolish and then choose the largest platform from which to confront it, you had better be very sure about what outcomes you are after and what your key themes should be or you will make things worse. 

The second piece of the jigsaw is to have a spokesperson (Royal/CEO/General etc) who is able to deliver both this key message, and the packages of information around it, convincingly whilst under pressure. The ability to deliver pre-arranged messages without looking like you’re delivering pre-agreed messages is a rare skill. Coaching and practice are essential. Emily Maitlis, who has been doing this for years, practiced the interview several times. Did he?

Finally, if these two are in place and you still plan to go on the front foot, then the channel through which you wish to impart your information has to be carefully considered, ideally by a group. If you don’t, and think you can ad lib, there is a real risk that either by gaff or omission you will end up creating a feeding frenzy. This also includes the manner of the delivery. If the centrepiece of your interview is humility, then the largest room in Buckingham Palace is not the best location. And why empathy for the victims was not the theme is anyone’s guess but poor planning, again, seems to be at the heart. Or perhaps he had advisors who only say what they think the boss wants to hear – a trait that is surprisingly common in the commercial communications sector.

As ever, there have been notable exceptions to these rules. Richard Farrington on the grounding of his ship HMS Nottingham blasted his way to the front with the, “Just as the sun comes up in the morning, if you run your ship aground you get court martialled.” quote. He demonstrated a willingness to accept culpability that had sections of the Australian press praising him so soon after the incident that the MoD’s attempts to gag him couldn’t keep up.

Likewise saying nothing can sometimes work. Whilst it will often create a vacuum into which the press and others will leap, Sir Michael Fallon’s repeated assertion in late 2016 in light of rumours of a Trident misfire that “we do not comment on the deterrent”, although not particularly pleasant to deal with in the MoD Press Office, kept the operational sanctity of that weapon in-tact and was therefore the right thing to do.

Normally, however, there is a middle ground. The advice, apparently given in this instance, to place an heavyweight article in a major US and UK outlet was good. If he wanted to amplify these words still further, then radio might have been a better medium. The ‘perfect face for radio’ is often a cruel jibe but the underlying premise is sound. You can reach a large audience without exposing many of your idiosyncrasies. In fact there are dozens of ways of reaching one’s target audience that are equally impactful but carry less immediate jeopardy than, say, Newsnight.

The communicator’s job is to identify what these should be through a series of steps starting with ‘what is the objective of the intervention?’. Then, who are the people whose sentiment you wish to change. Once you know these two you can work on the strategy or ‘idea’ to deliver the objective to the audience. This will involve considerable work to identify the message(s), the messenger, the channel and the context. Then, of course, you have to persuade the person in charge to accept your plan. Difficult to do if ‘forward leaning’ is in their nature. As the Commanding Officer of c230 people in a warship, not dissimilar to being a CEO, I’m pretty sure I used to occasionally overrule people who were advising me on what to say, so it’s no real shock when CEOs do it to me now as a communications consultant. At that point your role changes away from comms and towards one of leadership and persuasion.

To conclude, there are as many different types of crisis communications as there are types of crisis. But some rules apply to all. If you don’t prepare then your reputation will suffer more and take longer to repair. If you don’t have a cast iron handle on what you did wrong (or what is perceived to have been done wrong) and address it in the right way, then your bluff will certainly be called at some point – shouting more loudly will only make it worse. The Duke has significant pulling power; alternative less showy options would have gained traction wherever he tried to place them with much lower risk. CEOs everywhere should use the royal interview as a case study from which to discuss their crisis plans with their Directors of Communications. But in sum, if you’re a Crown Prince, then facing down the cameras might just work. If you’re a ‘normal’ Prince, then other options may be preferable.

Published by Tom Sharpe

Tom Sharpe is a freelance communications consultant and partner at www.SPP.global, an international communications consultancy. He specialises in managing reputations and capacity building for complex and often contested organisations. Prior to this he spent 27 years in the Royal Navy, 20 of which were at sea. He commanded four different warships; Northern Ireland, Fishery Protection, a Type 23 Frigate and the Ice Patrol Vessel, HMS Endurance.

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