For the British monarchy, tradition sells. Rituals link the ages as Her Majesty the Queen riding by in her Diamond Jubilee coach. This one topped with a gold crown carved from timber taken from the HMS Victory, Lord Nelson’s flagship launched in 1765. Every wave, walk-about, and wedding bathed in symbolism.
The show of stability is intended as the British crown is the embodiment of the state. It provides the star power, the center that holds the country together regardless of the new occupant of 10 Downing Street or the clamorous challenges of Brexit and a global pandemic.
That is why Oprah Winfrey’s bombshell interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex has rocked the Buckingham Palace. It raises issues of racism, bullying, and institutional hypocrisy that could turn into a deep public relations crisis; even worse than the one prompted by the dueling interview wars of Prince Charles and Princess Diana leading up to their divorce and her tragic death.
Once again, regardless of who’s right, we are forced to look beyond the family feud to the business side of the firm and witness the managerial bungling and missed opportunities of what is above all a mandate to unify and fashion a modern version of an old institution.
(The business of the Windsors, known as “the firm,” as coined by King George VI and used by Prince Philip refers to the establishment of courtiers and staff fronted by the world’s most famous, celebrity family.)
Allegations of racial insensitivity, hostility, and lack of emotional support voiced by a son of the future monarch, Prince Charles, is a blow to a brand most comfortable projecting western political correctness and multiculturalism. The Queen benefits immensely as the much-admired figurehead of the Commonwealth of fifty-four nations, former colonies with a total population of 2.4 billion. Ninety percent in the “family of nations” are people of color.
Meghan Markle, pretty, poised, and bi-racial would surely be the perfect fit. As well, Prince Harry has youth appeal and is popular on the international stage. As impatient and entitled as the younger generation may be, were there no media-savvy royal secretaries at the firm to save the family from itself? Was the all or nothing pact that rendered the exiled Sussexes of no service the smart option?
What’s not in question are the public relations missteps by the royal handlers. Buckingham Palace has already been forced to hire an independent investigator after announcing an “in house” inquiry into allegations against Meghan Markle. The salvo was made in a forceful public statement decrying “bullying” days before her CBS interview, now seen by over 50 million worldwide.
In contrast, there was no public condemnation of “racism,” even in principle, following Meghan’s and Harry’s allegations of prejudicial treatment, highlighted by a question about their son’s skin colour. Instead, the topic will be shielded from public view and “addressed by the family privately.” It was another botched opportunity and something of a slight of hand, for here was an institution funded by taxpayers appearing to change the rules of when they are a family and when they are not.
As the Royal historian Robert Lacey told the Guardian, “that should be a holding statement. The next step is to say: yes, with regard to the personal family issues, we are working on that in private. But we acknowledge there are issues of public accountability here.”
Post interview critics accused the Palace of being stuck in the past but unable to learn from it. The original “bombshell” interview with Princes Diana and Martin Bashir in 1995 is the example most often cited. The public has heard from two women from different backgrounds and generations: married to father-son princes, telling similar stories about mental duress inside the royal bubble.
The Daily Mail’s characterization of revelations by the Sussexes as the “worst royal crisis in 85 years” sounds hyperbolic. Still, the moment is fraught with danger for the British monarchy on the cusp of dynastic change. After sixty-eight years of rule with a Queen who is both admired and respected, there will be less room for public relations errors going forward.
Following the interview, both Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau of Canada and Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand have downplayed calls to reclaim the Head of State status from the British crown. However, the former Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, suggests there will be more such calls because there are “more Elizabethans than there are monarchists” holding the Commonwealth together.
Meghan is American. And while that may have hurt her in the UK where her popularity has plummeted, the Sussexes are being fiercely defended at home. Indeed, a power posse of mostly women are taking on the firm on their social media platform. The list of influencers includes Beyoncé, Hillary Clinton, Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, Amanda Gorman and Megan McCann. The actor Leslie Jordan’s shoutout to Meghan hints at a cross-Atlantic, British- American war of words the firm will surely wish to avoid when he posted, “We got your back, honey, and we’ve got more Queens than they do.”
Bodine Williams is a public relations consultant who specializes in crisis communication, issues management and media training. Her book, Game Face: Mastering the Media Interview, 19 Cautionary Tales, is available on Amazon.