Prince Andrew and the Lib Dems made the same PR mistake

If we'll remember 2019 for anything, it probably won't be public relations. Let's be honest, we've not had a vintage year, at least on the face of it.

If you hire someone with no relevant experience to run comms, you're courting disaster, argues Grace Garland
If you hire someone with no relevant experience to run comms, you're courting disaster, argues Grace Garland

When Jools Holland finally puts us out of our misery at midnight on 31 December, the enduring image of the past 12 months in PR could well be of a sweat-free Prince Andrew failing to understand the dictionary definition of 'honourable'. It shouldn't be.

Not long after his disastrous Newsnight interview aired last month, it was revealed that the Duke of York's media advisor, Jason Stein, had left his role at the Palace a few weeks before, after clashing with Andrew's private secretary, Amanda Thirsk, over the interview.

Thirsk, a Cambridge law graduate, had apparently pushed for him to do the interview, against the advice of Stein.

As we now know, doing the interview was a mistake.

A much better tactic would have been to "focus on charitable work and then agree to two newspaper interviews next year", as Stein was reported to have suggested, but Prince Andrew decided that instead of trusting the man hired as 'special advisor for communications' he would go with the opinion of his private secretary, who has many years of experience… in banking.

But Prince Andrew is not alone.

Last week Rosy Cobb, the Liberal Democrats' head of media, was suspended when it emerged that she had forged an email to make it look like the press office had responded to a request for comment on a story about the party selling data to the Remain camp.

The original story had gone all but unnoticed, but when investigative news site openDemocracy discovered the forged email, it hit the front pages of almost all the major broadsheets.

With this news came the revelation that Cobb had been appointed earlier this year despite never having worked in a press office before.

The appointment came as part of a 'shake-up' of the communications team which saw two staffers leave, and Cobb, formerly of the Parliamentary Adviser Unit, take the reins.

Well, consider the Lib Dems' public relations shaken.

What these media meltdowns have in common is that the people managing the situations had no experience in public relations.

The other commonality is that both inexperienced communications leads made the situation materially worse.

Why would anyone at a time of intense scrutiny forego expert advice?

I think that says as much about the perception of public relations as it does about both parties' poor judgement.

In both these cases there is a good argument to be made the right side won – Prince Andrew's defence was ripped to shreds by an excellent Emily Maitlis and Cobb was made to pay for her untruths dealing with journalists.

There's no doubt that both these PR disasters could have been avoided – but similar gaffes will continue so long as the real experts in public relations are sidelined, 'shaken up', or sacked in favour of loyal generalists.

So let's hope 2020 is the year experience and expertise is regarded as a 'must-have' for public relations – while we're at it, perhaps there should be some credentials required for being a Prince, too.

Grace Garland is PR director at MVF

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