PR reaction: Harry & Meghan's media strategy will only fuel tabloids' 'splenetic rage'

PR experts believe that although Harry and Meghan's motives are laudable, their move to ditch the 'royal rota' and take a tight rein over media relations could backfire and be counterproductive to the quieter life they desire.

Harry and Meghan on a recent trip to Canada (┬ęDANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Harry and Meghan on a recent trip to Canada (┬ęDANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Many will empathise with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to take tighter control of media relations and no longer deal with the tabloid press, but from a PR perspective it is likely to only ‘fan the flames’.

Judging by the raging front pages across the red tops today, it seems Harry and Meghan’s desire to dim the spotlight on their private lives could be doomed to failure.

Yesterday, the couple publicly announced they want to step away from "senior" royal duties and become more financially independent.

They stated they would like to "balance" their time between the UK and North America, having recently returned from a long trip to Canada.

They also want to take far greater control of media relations, which includes engaging with "grassroots media organisations and young, up-and-coming journalists", providing access only to "credible media outlets focused on objective reporting".

A key part of their new media approach is no longer participating in the 'royal rota' – which provides exclusive access to members of the royal family to The Daily Express, The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror, The Evening Standard, The Telegraph, The Times and The Sun.

In a pointed criticism of the royal rota, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex stated: "Regrettably, stories that may have been filed accurately by royal correspondents are, also, often edited or rewritten by media editorial teams to present false impressions", which are then amplified by media outlets across the world.

The pair also took a swipe at the four tabloids, which they said often published photos and information "simultaneously or in advance of their own release".

"This formula enables these select publications to profit by publishing these images on their websites/front pages. Any breach in this understanding creates long-term repercussions," the statement read.

More content will be shared directly through the pair’s social media feeds.

But is taking such a radical approach to media relations wise for one of the most high-profile couples in the world?

In a snap PRWeek poll this morning, 44 per cent of Twitter followers thought it was a good move, 30 per cent believed it was ill-advised and the rest say time will tell.

"While it may help their 'brand', it won’t stop the intrusion. I know several LA-based paps who are already digging out their duvet jackets and planning to relocate to Canada, if that is where they choose to move to," said Ian Kirby, head of MHP’s Strategic Media Unit and a former political editor at the News of the World.

"The Daily Mail won’t stop writing about them, her dad will keep popping up on Good Morning Britain, so those problems won’t go away."

One question Kirby has is how the couple think they will be able to raise awareness of causes they support "without having to subject themselves to questions from the likes of BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell".

Harry and Meghan attend the WellChild awards. Will their new media strategy make it more difficult for them to raise awareness about causes they support? (©Toby Melville - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Kirby believes this decision highlights the clash between "old-school PR and ‘influencing’", but in the short-term will cause "splenetic rage in many newspapers" on the royal rota.

It is this reaction that has several PR professionals questioning the wisdom of Harry and Meghan’s decision, the tone of their announcement, and the decision not to inform other members of the Royal Family.

The Daily Mail has already gone to town on it, running "17 pages of mawkish coverage and speculation", which W Communications founder and MD Warren Johnson described as "a spectacular own goal".

"If this was a PR brief to step out of the limelight gracefully and with the minimum amount of media intrusion, it couldn’t have gone any worse," he said.

"Aside from the obvious PR mismanagement, on a personal level you’d surely at least tell your own family in advance of your plans before plunging everyone into a vortex of tabloid frenzy, turning it into a story of breakdown in relations between brothers and a father and son. It’s almost as if Prince Andrew has engineered this to do himself a favour."

Nina Sawetz, managing director of Future, said she can understand why the couple have made the move, but you "cannot run away from bad press", adding that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge took a better approach by riding it out and "using their Royal power not only to give the press a dressing down, but work with the journalists and swing the media in their favour".

"There has been a lot of talk of Diana and the obvious comparisons, but one thing to remember is Diana was an expert in playing and using the press," she said.

Sawetz fears that for all of Harry and Meghan’s bravado, they have only fanned the flames even more. 

"By detaching themselves from the Royal Family, they also detach themselves from the power, protection and authority the Royals have when they need it," she said. "Their desire for more control over press coverage is admirable, but I think they'll find quite quickly that they've actually given the press even more freedom."

'Good for them, bad for Royal Family'

Not all comms experts believe the move is negative. Blurred founding partner Katy Stolliday said that although the timing of the announcement was terrible – in the wake of Prince Andrew’s scandal – there is an inevitability about their decision to ditch "a system they can never beat".

"I have no doubt this will be the right decision for them personally, and most people can, of course, understand a desire to protect their own family unit; but the long-term ramifications on the Royal Family is an entirely different matter – with the loss of key modern members."

The reason why Harry and Meghan have decided to go rogue is what the couple feel is unfair media treatment of Meghan, particularly in the tabloid press.

Asad Dhunna, founder of The Unmistakables, said the mainstream media only covers issues around diversity and difference if it has a negative or shock angle to it. 

"At a micro level it drives sales and clicks, but at a macro level it drives division," he said.

Dhunna believes eschewing the mainstream and working with grassroots and more targeted media will bring "great commercial, cultural and/or conversational success, as we have seen with our clients". 

"We call this ‘the difference dividend’. It provides more balance, nuance and, crucially, it’s where new audiences are – audiences that are turned off from the mainstream given structural biases," he explained.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have waved goodbye to the Royal Rota. (©Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

What PR pros said...

PRWeek was inundated with comments about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s new media relations strategy. Here is a selection of the best:

"I anticipate a surge in the sale of gin – the poor Queen. This was a very loud way of stepping aside quietly – and reflects a media strategy empowered by the ‘gram. What feels like a North American approach is a red rag to the British media they are rejecting. Whilst I understand the shadow of Diana will always be present when it comes to the royal tabloid dance, I don’t think that the general public knew what the royal rota was, or would have noticed had they silently rejected being part of it.
Chloe Franses, founder and CEO, Franses

"This media strategy is straight out of Hollywood, where publicists hold all the power. Celebrities only talk to ‘friendly’ journalists and, more often than not, have total copy and image approval. That is absolutely not a ‘free and open media industry’. Harry and Meghan’s objectives may be understandable – even admirable – but the way they’re going about this is a lesson in how to alienate the public (not to mention Harry’s entire family). They’ve disrespected the very institution that gives them their fame and their platform – and Royalists won’t forget (or forgive) that."
Rob Lester, managing director, ThreeSixty

"There are two key elements from a communication perspective that I would observe. First, use of language is important, the style of the statement and in particular the concept of "collaborating with HM The Queen" does not seem appropriate. Secondly, statements of this magnitude need careful preparation; notably, those affected and mentioned in it may want to know ahead of time! In terms of the media guide, if they do not want to act as members of the Royal Family then it is perfectly logical to not engage with the royal rota. However, they would be better served by stating that as a fact rather than attempting to make a point about the UK tabloid press. In cases when you feel hurt by the press, a statesmanlike approach where what is not said is more powerful is often more effective."
Tom Nutt, head of corporate, Grayling

"Now the couple must head off at the pass any perception that they intend to have their cake and eat it. They should set out clearly how they see their role, the contribution they will make to society, evolving. Such a contribution is not desired, but expected. That is very likely to take the form of a new charitable foundation, and Harry would do well to observe the tremendous success of The Prince’s Trust, and the positive impact this had on his father’s reputation. In order to maintain their popularity, the couple should also be full-throated in their support for the Royal Family and its traditions, while continuing to serve as a progressive influence on the institution. The way in which their move was communicated, apparently without consultation at the highest levels of the family, was an aggressive move. The couple would be better off avoiding any sense that they are the antagonists in this saga."
Andy Williams, account director, Hume Brophy

"The move towards ‘independence’ from the Royal Family may prove possible in financial terms, but their brand and reputation cannot be easily separated, not least because they seem to want to have their cake and eat it by retaining Frogmore and the HRH titles. Every public statement, every action and lifestyle choice will be reported as a contrast with, or even a challenge to the rest of the royals, and Prince William in particular. For a quiet life, the example of Princess Anne might have been their best option, to be dutiful but unflashy, and stay in the background. As it is, their decision to part company with the firm, at least for PR purposes, will probably lead to even greater media scrutiny of the kind that they clearly find so difficult."
Andy Sawford, managing partner, The Connect Group

"What a shambles! Another complete misstep in a growing list of ill-thought-out, poorly timed and badly communicated announcements. The Sussexes are either not listening to their advisers or are simply being told what they want to hear by their inner circle. A positive six-week break away in Canada and opportunity to reset for the new year has been soured by last night’s announcement, in a similar fashion to 2019’s successful South Africa tour which was ruined at the final hour. And, while I can understand their wish to free up their ability to communicate externally by breaking ranks with the Royal Rota, this is only going to further deepen the combative stance with the tabloids who will in turn be less amenable to respecting their wishes for greater privacy. Oh, the irony."
James Brooke, managing director, Rooster

"Their determination to be ‘financially independent’ while ‘fully supporting’ the Queen looks like an impossible balancing act that merely fuels the unfortunate public perception that the couple are trying to have their cake and eat it. The eventual outcome can only really be that the couple withdraw completely from royal life – it is simply not feasible for them to be ‘half in and half out’ – and this will not only be a loss to The Firm of a very vital and forward-thinking couple, but could also create a sense of an alternative ‘royal circle’ outside the Royal family itself – a situation which will be viewed with despair by senior royals and their advisors."
Martin Townsend, partner, Pagefield & former editor of Sunday Express

"Harry will be a loss for the Royal Family's media team. Ignoring his rebel phase, he has always been a different, more approachable face for a new generation of royals. I managed a charity media shoot for his 18th birthday – even back then he had a natural charm and easy demeanour in front of the cameras."
David Martin, CEO, Be Known Communications

"The texture of these statements gives the impression of a family spat being brought into the public eye. The Sussexes seem to be using their statement as a way of forcing the issue – which was clearly not decided as far as Her Majesty was concerned. It’s a high-risk strategy that relies on the royals wanting to give the impression that this has all been managed harmoniously, in order to let the Duke and Duchess carry on and do as they intend. If the Palace decides it is happy to take the flack and air this laundry in public, as it may do given its response thus far, this could backfire for them."
Armand David, managing director, applied innovation - Brands2Life

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