24 March 2021

It’s official: the Royal Family are a brand in crisis

It was the interview the world stopped to watch. How the Royal Family are paying the price for a lackluster crisis response.

By Dallas Gurney

It was always going to be a firecracker, but nobody could’ve foreseen the consequences of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex last week.

From Meghan’s mental health struggles to allegations of inappropriate racial comments made about their then unborn son, Archie; the revelations came thick and fast from a couple revered in the USA but seen as much more polarising on the other side of the Atlantic.

The Palace had tried to outflank them, they had scheduled their own media appearances right up against Meghan and Harry’s prime-time interview.

But nothing could’ve overshadowed this.  It was candid.  It was insightful.  It was explosive.  It will go down (alongside David Frost’s inquisition of Richard Nixon and Martin Bashir’s one-on-one with Harry’s mother Diana), as one of the most memorable television interviews of all time.

To say the interview painted the monarchy as stuffy and disconnected would be an understatement.  Meghan’s criticism of the “institution” was confronting.

For hardcore royalists, it still wouldn’t have changed their view of Meghan as a brash American status-seeker.  But for those with a more open mind, it probably confirmed what was already suspected: The Royal Family are a bunch of weirdos.

Behind the scenes the Queen, now 94, must’ve wondered what she had done to deserve this.

Between Megxit, the far more serious allegations levelled against Prince Andrew and the hospitalisation of the Duke of Edinburgh, the monarchy seems to have lately lurched from one crisis to another in the last 12 months.

This is not a new situation for the Queen.  1992 saw the separation of Prince Andrew and Fergie and divorce of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips.  Her nephew committed suicide.  Diana: Her True Story was published, revealing Charles’ long-term affair with Camilla.  Newspapers printed topless photos of Fergie and transcripts of intimate conversations between Diana and a lover.  And then, to top it all off, a fire ripped through Windsor Castle.  She called this year her “annus horribillis”.

Immediately after the Oprah interview was broadcast, the public’s gaze turned towards Buckingham Palace.  How would they react?  What would they say?  Was it Prince Charles or Prince William who was the racist?  Comments like that couldn’t be left unchecked, surely?

Sadly, the response was underwhelming.  In a short 60-word statement issued more than two days after the blockbuster interview, the Queen said Meghan and Harry were “much-loved family members,” and that “the issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning.”

The statement oozes with everything the Palace wants you to think about the monarchy.  Stable.  Balanced.  Calm.  The matter would be handled “internally”.  Nothing to see here.

It’s simply not good enough.

If Royal Family were a business, they wouldn’t get away with such a lackluster response.  There would be independent investigations.  High-profile suspensions.  The boss would be fronting up for interviews.  Why do we hold the Royal Family to another set of expectations to that of The Warehouse or McDonald’s?

It comes down to the Queen and the brand capital she has created over her almost 70 years on the throne.  There is so much love invested in her personal brand that just saying “leave it with me” is good enough for most.  There is nobody else I can think of with that much power.

You spend your brand love in a reputational crisis.  If you have a lot, like Air NZ, it can help you out of a pretty big hole.  If you have very little, like Donald Trump is now finding, you are in for a long haul.

For the monarchy, however, this brand love is fast being spent.

Every titillating photograph and revealing interview chips away a bit more at the Queen’s personal brand capital, the very capital she uses to save her children and broader family from much more serious consequences.

It will get to the point where she will have to behave in a more transparent way – like most brands have to – so as to prove allegations made against the Royal Family are being taken seriously.

And then, there’s what happens when she dies.  When she took the throne in 1952 the monarchy was still the brand.  Seventy years later, it’s her.  When she goes, so does the people’s tolerance for this mediocre response to crisis.  That, will be the end of an era.