I find the idea of a Royal Family to be a strange one. How does a liberal democracy still acquiesce to hereditary leadership by a small group of people supposedly ordained by God? Although I’m baffled by the continuing existence of the House of Windsor, Iike most of us, I tuned in to watch Harry and Meghan getting married two years ago, and as someone who works in communications, I’ve been a keen observer of the media’s coverage of the couple ever since.
I was a little stunned, but not really surprised at the outrage shown towards a letter Harry and Meghan sent to the main four tabloids: Daily Mail, Mirror, Express and The Sun, effectively refusing to deal with them henceforth. I read comments from peers calling the letter “petulant”, “out of step”, and “tone deaf” and I wondered why they all seemed to be repeating tabloid talking points.
The question that needs to be asked is “out of step” with who? Deaf to what tone? What the tabloids want the Sussexes and the public to believe is that there is only one route to public admiration and acceptance, and that’s through them. This has been the tabloids’ modus operandi for years, but when you really think about it, it is a veiled threat. It operates on the premise that celebrities and public figures are sustained by public approval, and the price of achieving that approval is to collaborate with the tabloids.
The threat is: “give us access, or else”. This model has worked for many a celebrity. They get in bed with the tabloids and the tabloids print positive stories about them. Quid Pro Quo. But that arrangement cedes overwhelming power to these organisations, because once they deem a celebrity to be insufficiently appreciative, they can easily turn the public against them. With this letter, Harry and Meghan have said “Enough! We’re not going to play that game”.
I also don’t buy the argument about the insensitivity of the timing. The letter was sent directly to the editors of the four tabloids, it wasn’t posted on the Sussex’s Instagram account. They didn’t launch a campaign around this. The tabloids released the letter to try and get public support and claim they were being put upon at a time of crisis. Meanwhile, Harry and Meghan were delivering food to those in need in LA.
The tabloids are banking on their ability to control the public’s perception of the Sussexes, and don’t get me wrong, they have been quite successful in poisoning the minds of many Brits; but, what Harry and Meghan are counting on is their own ‘brand loyalty’ and ability to circumvent traditional media, control their own narrative, and influence the public’s perception on their terms. Harry and Meghan are shaking the orthodoxy and it appears many in the media and communications simply don’t get it.
They are young, beautiful, smart, cool, alert to societal injustices, and friends with the Obamas and Oprah. Trust me, they know where their bread is buttered, and it ain’t with the readers of the Mail, Mirror, Express, and The Sun.
The protestations of these tabloids are the last gasps of grotesque gatekeepers, indignant that the illusion of their power has been exposed. The scales have fallen from Harry and Meghan’s eyes, they have reclaimed their story, and they are going to give it, unfiltered, to the public.
Putting my brand hat on, why should they risk the distortion of their narrative by putting it through UK-centric tabloids that peddle in gossip, salaciousness and untruth when there is a receptive global audience willing to hear from them directly. Why be beholden to Piers Morgan when they can sign deals with Netflix? You see where I’m going with this? There is absolutely no incentive for Harry and Meghan to uphold the archaic, intransigent, racist and classist tabloid status quo.
So instead of calls from my peers that Harry and Meghan should “fire their PR teams”, I hope we can all learn from them and understand that, oftentimes, the power of the media is just an illusion, and there is no substitute for ‘owned media’ and direct engagement with your audience. Finally, in the game of celebrity, whenever you do have leverage over unscrupulous tabloid types, it is perfectly okay to take your ball and go home.
Julian Obubo is brand strategy director at Manifest
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