This week Charlie shares his comments on the crisis communications aspect of the Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein scandal.
I have been following the Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein story with interest over the last few weeks and thought I would make some comments on how the crisis communications of this incident have been handled. I assumed that the story had faded away, but I noticed that five of the alleged victims of Epstein, including Virginia Roberts who has accused Epstein of forcing her into sex with Prince Andrew, are going to be interviewed on TV today. I suspect this will lead to a flurry of headlines in the newspapers tomorrow, bringing the story back to the public’s attention and probably causing further embarrassment for Prince Andrew.
The following are a few of my thoughts on the crisis communications surrounding this case:
Comment 1 – Don’t get yourself in the position in the first place
This is of course easy for me to say, but Prince Andrew has brought this on himself. Even if you give him the benefit of the doubt when he said he didn’t “witness or suspect any behaviour of the sort that subsequently led to [Epstein’s] arrest and conviction”, after his friend served 13 months in jail when he pleaded guilty to two felony prostitution charges (including one count of soliciting an underage prostitute), he continued the friendship, and was even photographed walking with Epstein in Central Park. As soon as Epstein was convicted, Princes Andrew should have dropped all connections, as it would be fairly obvious being seen in the company of a convicted paedophile was not going to be good for his reputation and would lead to negative headlines.
Comment 2 – Listen to your advisors
Every member of the royal family has advisors and I suspect Prince Andrew’s advisors urged him not to continue his friendship with Epstein, as they recognised the message it would give and the impact it would have on his image. In a number of newspapers, the Prince is described as headstrong and not someone who likes being told what to do. I do not know if this is true or not, but many a crisis management case study is made up of arrogant senior managers or leadership teams who, when faced with a potential crisis, do not listen to advisors and take the attitude, “who are these people to tell me what to do” and “don’t you know who I am”. The victims are forgotten in this indignant rhetoric. This was exactly the attitude of the Equifax board when they were hacked; they seemed more concerned about the impact on their company rather than their customers who had had their personal details stolen. You can read my bulletin on the Equifax incident here.
Comment 3 – In sexual crimes, denial is a difficult strategy at present
In the time before the #MeToo movement and investigations into physical and sexual abuse of children at a range of institutions throughout the UK and beyond, a powerful man (usually) or institution could belittle an accuser, deny the accusation and the accuser would not be believed. Even if a number of accusers came forward on the whole, they were not believed and the individual or organisation was able to continue the abuse. Individuals and organisations were also able to pay off accusers with large sums of money and gagging clauses to make sure the problem went away. Today, victims are much more likely to be believed and a simple denial, such as “His Royal Highness deplores the exploitation of any human being and the suggestion he would condone, participate in or encourage any such behaviour is abhorrent”, is less likely to be believed. The title of this bulletin is a statement from Prince Andrew’s accuser Virginia Roberts, who says she was forced to have sex with him. She said this very powerfully on camera and it felt very convincing. Perhaps we will never know the truth, but in today’s climate the accuser is much more likely to be believed, so it is a lot more difficult for the accused to convince people that they are telling the truth and the accuser is lying.
Comment 4 – Use your friends and respected people, to support you
You can vehemently defend yourself when accused of wrongdoing, but there is always the “well he would say that wouldn’t he” attitude of those listening. What is much more powerful is when respected people come out and publicly defend you. People take the attitude “if X defends Y, the accusation must be false, as I respect that person’s judgement and they would not defend Y if the accusation was true”. One of the strategies Prince Andrew has used is to be seen sitting alongside the Queen at church in Balmoral. The Queen does not comment on family matters very often and would not make a statement to defend her son, but Prince Andrew being photographed sitting next to her in a car on the way to church, is the royals’ way of saying the family supports Andrew. Whether they believe him and the support is real or whether it is family solidarity, we will probably never know. The royals know that damage to one member of the family undermines the whole family as a whole, so family solidarity may be more important than the misjudgements of Prince Andrew.
Comment 5 – Crying fake news smacks of desperation
One of the prominent images from this incident is a picture of Prince Andrew with his arm around Virginia Roberts, aged 17. This picture is damaging in that it seems to reinforce the narrative of the accusation. Friends of Prince Andrew have alleged that the picture is a fake, as the fingers around Virginia Roberts waist are too large and the wrong colour. Reading the response to this accusation in the newspapers, most dismiss their claim. As soon as you claim fake news, it looks like it is the only argument you have left. Your supporters will usually believe the claim of fake news and conspiracies, but the majority will see it as desperation.
In the end, this storm will blow over and the media circus will move on to another story and this one will be forgotten. Prince Andrew cannot be “de-princed” and as he has very little commercial endorsement, the lasting impact of this may be minimal, except for the lingering doubt on his reputation. If the accusation is false, and it may be, then it is very difficult for him to defend himself when it is his word against his accuser’s. If he was guilty, he could apologise, claim a serious lack of judgement and hope to move on. If you are innocent, it is very difficult to draw a line under the event. If the case goes to court, this could be a way of proving innocence, but as Epstein is dead it may never go to court and so it will linger and only fade away over time.