The Duke of York, Prince Andrew, during a visit in Perth, Australia, last month. Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images

Prince Andrew’s cock-up is colossal. All his family really do is image and spin

It was meant to ‘draw a line under the whole episode’. So how did it turn into an unmitigated PR disaster, asks former Edelman executive David Brain.

The thing about the Royal Family is that everything they do is PR really. I mean in the old sense of image and spin. There’s no product or service other than being famous and making people believe that they stand for something, so they’ve become pretty good at it since the debacle after the death of Diana when the nation began to realise that the Queen was as hard as nails and not just some loveable granny.

The Will-and-Kate and Harry-and-Meghan turbulence prove they’re not Kardashian good just yet, but they’re not bad.

And I say that grudgingly as a lifelong republican. They’ve hired some of the best PR people in the business (a number of them my friends), they’ve learned lessons, taken advice and generally started behaving better – which is always the best PR counsel, by the way.

So I was surprised when I heard Prince Andrew had agreed to be interviewed by BBC Newsnight about his links to Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier and paedophile and about allegations that he had sex with the then 17-year-old Virginia Roberts Giuffre, allegedly procured on his behalf by Epstein.

I was surprised because I thought he was “bang to rights”, as we used to say in London. There was the photograph of him in Central Park with Epstein after Epstein had been charged and lots of evidence of time spent in Epstein’s houses and planes and, most damning, “that photo” of Andrew with his arm around Roberts Giuffre at the time she alleges they had sex. The attempts via friendly media channels to suggest this last might be a fake muddied the waters, but not many seemed convinced.

He was sullied by all this, but there was no lynch mob at the palace gates and Epstein had conveniently committed suicide and it would not have been hard to stone-wall everything and for the “firm” to put him on ice and close ranks for a few years and wait for it all to blow over. It’s not the right thing to do, but it’s effective and they’ve done worse.

I know from those friends and associates that Andrew has little judgement and very limited ability to think on his feet, so if he was doing 30 minutes with one of the UK’s most serious news analysis shows, I assumed he must have had a compelling new version of events and even some new detailed evidence or cast-iron alibi. Perhaps he was going to apologise?

If he had, it might have made sense to try to “draw a line under the whole episode”, as the interview was designed to do.

But he would need to be trained and drilled and acquire a new and uncharacteristic discipline. And more than that, he would first have to give a real condemnation of Epstein’s crimes and express genuine and heartfelt sympathy for the victims, which as a father of two girls is not something he’d have to fake you might think.

He would also need to show his remorse at the extra suffering he had caused the victims and their families by spending time with Epstein and especially about reconnecting with him after he was charged and then found guilty, a decision which served to imply that Epstein was not shunned by the great and good and might perhaps “win out” in the end. There’s no question this caused real distress and a full and frank recognition of this and an appropriate apology was completely within Prince Andrew’s power to make.

And then and only then, people might be prepared to hear what else he had to say.

But, incredibly, he did none of that and it appears he had nothing new to say about Virginia Roberts Giuffre’s accusations about him that was convincing and, almost as bad, nothing that was not comical. If he had been trained, then it was by legal people (the resort to “lack of memory” rather than straight denial is often the giveaway).

Any half-decent PR person given a minute on Google would spot the problems with the claims he did make: that he does not sweat, “only wears suits in London” and is not into “public hugging”. And you don’t have to be a detective to work out that being at the Pizza Express in Woking in the late afternoon does not mean you can’t be at Tramps in Mayfair that night or that not knowing where the bar is in a place so small and which you regularly frequent is implausible even for a non drinker. Or that it’s weird to spend four days in the house of someone you are visiting to say you can’t visit them any more. This is very much not an exhaustive list in case you have not treated yourself to a full viewing.

But weirder than all of this was the fact that he never looked panicked throughout the interview. He was calm and measured almost as if he had performed like that in rehearsals. It was like he thought he had done a good job.

Unfortunately for him, the resulting interview will be used by the PR industry to train people on “how not to do it” for years to come and, given the Royal Family are in permanent planning for “life after Liz” mode, it could not have come at a worse time for them.

Strong PR people spend much of their time holding up a mirror to their clients and showing them how they are perceived, how their behaviour will be viewed and what impact that will have on them and their organisations. Great PR people keep doing that in times of crisis and after the crisis has abated, convince those clients to keep behaving well (or at least better) so as to avoid repeats.

All of that sounds easy, but when the stakes are high and careers, deals or reputations are at risk it takes experience and a degree of personal fortitude. So what happened here you might ask and why did Prince Andrew take the terrible decision to do the interview and then perform so badly in it?

Turns out, Prince Andrew lost his very experienced PR director a couple of weeks ago and so appears to have relied on Amanda Thirsk, an ex-banker with no sign of any media or PR experience whatsoever. This is the equivalent of sacking your surgeon when she’s all gowned up and on the way into the operating theatre to undertake open-heart surgery and having your well-wishing friend step in as he “knows you pretty well” and you’ve “always trusted him”. It’s certainly not the profile of someone who can stand up to a Prince and call “bullshit” – who can tell him what his actions have really meant to the trafficked women and how the world will view that.

As is so often the case with “PR disasters”, it looks as though a weak “client” took advice from a weak PR adviser and in this case, they thought they could spin their way out of a situation that involved sex slaves and the suicide of a paedophile like they were excusing his lateness to cut the ribbon at the grand opening of the local village fete.

Unfortunately for them, they met a wonderfully prepared journalist who calmly and without hectoring or becoming aggressive, gently and forensically guided the Prince through his own incredible story and into a reputational tailspin.

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Incredible lapses of judgement can happen in businesses with big PR teams too of course. My personal favourite involves Tony Hayward, the cost-cutting CEO of BP. In the immediate aftermath of his firm’s catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, he pleaded for some time off because he was stressed and was subsequently pictured sailing his yacht in the pristine waters of the English south coast, while the beaches of Florida turned black with oil. Shame on his PR people, but he was a numbers-driven oilman and in his mitigation can claim he knows nothing of public opinion.

But if you are a royal, there is almost nothing else. Prince Andrew should either have known how to handle this or he should have hired, hung on to and listened to people with the experience and skills to properly advise him, even when that advice is painful. He didn’t do any of that and so he has failed in his first duty as royal: he is shit at PR. And he embarrassed them and cast a shadow as the “big transition” gets ever nearer.

Which is why, in the Daily Telegraph (a favourite for seeding royal stories), the Queen and her people are distancing themselves from the decision to do the interview. And when you’re supposed to be the favourite son and even your mum is spinning against you, you have a problem.

His best defence might be that he can guarantee, at least, a sixth series of The Crown.


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