As Prince William and Kate reached out towards the outstretched fingers of children pushing through a wire fence, it probably appeared to them a harmless gesture. But this would become the defining image of their trip to the Caribbean. The BBC’s Jonny Dymond called it ‘some sort of white-saviour parody.’ Not so harmless after all.
Then there was the open top Land Rover parade, a throwback to when the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited in the 1960s. While the intention was likely harmless, the colonial inference didn’t go unnoticed. Russell Myers in The Mirror said it would ‘have caused potentially irreparable damage to brand royal, certainly in a region where anti-monarchy sentiment is growing.’
These were just two examples of the PR faux pas which left the Cambridge’s unstuck and has fueled the debate on the monarchy’s relevance within the Commonwealth Caribbean states - the very opposite of the intended effect the royal tour was supposed to have. But let’s look at what PR lessons can be drawn from this eventful trip.
You can try, but you can’t control the angle the press will take. Yes, the Cambridge’s PR team were hoping that the defining shot of the tour would be the excited crowds who greeted the couple in downtown Kingston. But the ‘fingers through fences’ shot was the one.
Where this scenario could have been managed better was in good crisis communications planning before the event. This would have included an assessment of risks posed by the tour – the growing republican sentiment among many of the island nations as well as anger around Britain’s involvement in the slave trade — and perhaps would have led to a re-assessment of the tour agenda and messaging.
By alerting the royals of the PR danger this type of shot might do to them if showcased by the press, it may have made it less likely to have happened. Of course, the flip side of this is that in the same way you can’t direct the press, you can’t always direct every step of your client. Just look at Will Smith’s actions at the 2022 Oscars…
Even so, good pre-planning and briefings are essential if you know there’s a real risk that things might not go to plan.
Yes, you hopefully have all your communications plans in place before an event, but what if something forces a change of direction or someone goes off script? You need to be ready to regroup and take steps to move forward positively. As a PR manager you need to be agile, constantly reading the room and always ready to deal with a crisis.
If you need to adjust the itinerary or add an additional briefing session for your client to alert them to the PR climate they’ve found themselves in, then do so.
It’s possible to repair damage to your brand, and the royal family has proved over the years to be a fairly robust brand. But it should never be assumed that all PR disasters will just blow over one day.
It’s too early to tell how the Cambridge’s brand and the monarchy as a whole will fare now after their trip to the Caribbean – although it seems they’ve not done themselves many favours locally.
This harsh reality of not assuming it’ll be OK in the end, should be the springboard to help you get ready and responsive to any future PR disaster you may face.
If you use diligence and keep your eyes and ears open, you’ll have a better chance of turning a crisis into an opportunity.
Written by Sarann Buckby, Account Director for Crisis Communications, Jersey Road PR.
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