The Queen was not amused. Or so reports told us this week when news broke that The Duke and Duchess of Sussex—the uber-famous Prince Harry and Meghan Markle—were opting to step back from their official royal duties and depart for the less intrusive confines of Canada. Their communication to announce said split was reportedly released on 10 minutes’ notice to more relevant royals, namely Princes Charles and William, a step taken (again, allegedly because, who really knows?) to get out in front of a pending press leak.
Everything from traditional press outlets to the Twitterverse blew up upon hearing the news that not all was well at Buckingham Palace. The following statement from the Sussexes only added fuel to that media firestorm:
“After many months of reflection and internal discussions, we have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution. We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty the Queen. It is with your encouragement, particularly over the last few years, that we feel prepared to make this adjustment.
“We now plan to balance our time between the United Kingdom and North America, continuing to honour our duty to the Queen, the Commonwealth and our patronages. This geographic balance will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity.”
They also announced plans to become financially independent, even as it remains to be seen whether Canadians will be picking up the tab for their security. So, you know, sort of independent.
While this was a shocking development (by royal standards) in and of itself, the Royal Rumble only intensified with Buckingham Palace’s response:
“Discussions with The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are at an early stage. We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through.”
In the diplomatic lingua franca spoken by age-old institutions such as the monarchy, this was a communications throw down of epic proportions. We can make a few safe assumptions as to how major royals received the Sussexes’ declaration simply by reading between the lines of this curt statement:
- They were taken off guard by the announcement
- They were not happy
- There are processes to be followed and they feel no one should side step them
Well, sort of. In an apparent effort to contain the damage, the Queen has since agreed to allow Harry and Meghan to split their time between the U.K. and Canada as they transition into this new role, however it takes shape. What was extraordinary and worth noting was the unusually frank tone of these communiques. This simply never happens with institutions such as the monarchy. Usually steeped in formality and in perpetual image/message control mode, this was a clear example of a member of The Firm going off-piste (and fast!) with the rest of the family struggling to catch up and manage the fallout.
Whatever Harry and Meghan’s reasoning for pursuing a new life—and seeming desire to capitalize on their Kardashian-worthy brand potential—those of us in the marketing-communications and brand-management business took note of this flurry of messaging faux pas. It’s a reminder to organizations everywhere—even those far less notable than the monarchy—that having a well-constructed crisis management and communications strategy waiting in the wings is absolutely vital when brand emergencies necessitate their deployment.
It seems like the Queen took charge of the situation by calling a family meeting and giving Harry (at least most of) what he wanted, thus employing Communications Crisis Management Golden Rule #1: Quickly glean an understanding of the PR dumpster fire in your midst, assess the damage and get it under control as soon as possible.
Her Majesty is likely to take steps to ensure that a similar inferno doesn’t spark up and threaten the family brand anytime in the near future. But maybe next time she, or her advisors, should be careful not to let sensitive matters get out of control in the first place.