Racism, mental health, family strife, echoes of the untimely passing of Diana, Princess of Wales… these themes have reverberated loudly since Oprah Winfrey’s bombshell interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex. But what have the revelations done to reputations?
Following the sparse reactionary statement from the royal family and the abrupt departure of Piers Morgan, The Drum asks PR professionals and a pre-eminent royal family expert to define what impact the interview has had on the key players.
Interestingly, perceptions vary in the US and in the UK. However, experts on both sides of the pond agree that the royal family came away as the biggest losers.
The US verdict
Diane Clehane is a US-based royals expert who regularly appears on CNN and writes for the digital lifestyles magazine Best Life.
Clehane’s view on Meghan...
The interview was a game-changer in terms of her image. Meghan has always been more popular here in the US, among women especially. Hearing her talk about the racism she experienced and then, the bigger thing, hearing her talk about considering suicide as a pregnant woman – you could hear a collective gasp across the country. No one knew she was dealing with that. There are a tremendous number of people who now feel sympathy for her, which has changed their perception from being indifferent.
The mere fact that she talked about wanting to end her own life was a huge revelation. No one who covered this expected it to be so serious and to delve so deeply into these personal issues. There are a lot more people who empathize and sympathize with her now. She’s a lot more relatable because people had a fairy tale view of her life. People idealize the royals, but she very much disabused us of the notion that she was living this easy life. This gave people pause. Her image is more favorable than it was prior to doing this interview. Ranking: Favorable
Clehane’s view on Harry...
People here in the States have always embraced Harry and took him and William into their hearts after the death of Diana. Yes, they are grown men with their own lives and families, but they will always be Diana’s sons to Americans.
Harry and Meghan are now American celebrities. As we saw when Princess Diana was divorced from Prince Charles and was considering moving to the US, Americans don’t care if they lost their titles. Whatever they do, they will be one of the hottest brands around. People will want to do business with them. They got the Oprah Winfrey blessing. 17 million people watched them. They received an endorsement from Netflix, Spotify, all the areas that are trending. They aren’t going to launch a line of clothing now. They are aiming higher. They are looking more at the President Obama post-presidential brand.
Based on the disclosures Harry made Sunday night about the shocking things that happened behind the palace walls and within his own family, people can relate to that. We all have issues with our families. They have both have shown us, very clearly, that things were not what they appeared to be by a mile – that’s very relatable. They have helped their brand whatever it turns out to be. Ranking: Very favorable
Clehane’s view on the royal family...
They have a very big PR disaster on their hands. In the US, there were always questions relating back to the death of Diana. She was clearly the most popular royal here and around the globe. The royal family is on the receiving end of a lot of skepticism from people who don’t understand the system. They were the big losers. Meghan chose her words carefully about going to the institution to say she needed help with her mental health. If you parse the language very carefully, the institution is the family, and the family is the institution. They came out looking very bad.
The royal family obviously felt the heat as they never felt it before because they issued a statement. Never complain and never explain was a model that’s worked for hundreds of years, but that doesn’t work any more when you’ve got two members of the royal family spilling the tea. They have to respond to that. I don’t think the statement does much. It raises significant questions. Once you open the box, that’s it. People will be digging in. They are in uncharted territory. Ranking: Very unfavorable
Aaron Kwittken is chairman of KWT, chief exec of PRophet and author of last week’s popular post Three PR lessons from Harry, prince of publicity.
Kwittken’s view on Meghan...
Meghan came across as highly credible and relatable. I found it interesting that she was the one to go first in the series and raise the more sensitive issues around mental health and racism, while Harry was then on hand to corroborate and add additional depth and credibility to the discussion.
Personally, I am appalled that people on both sides of the pond, notables and ordinary people alike, continue to question Meghan’s integrity or falsely discount her story just because she’s privileged and has means. That’s not OK. I’d like to see Meghan use her new-found voice to serve as inspiration for anyone who feels trapped, discriminated against or is suffering from mental health issues, regardless of status.
While Meghan knew full well what she was getting into when agreeing to sit down with Oprah, I do feel like Oprah’s interviewing superpowers helped to uncover what it’s really like to be a royal, and it’s not so great after all. Ranking: Very favorable
Kwittken’s view on Harry...
I give Harry a lot of credit for ’showing up’ to this interview and being honest with the press and public. He brilliantly warmed us up with the James Cordon bit earlier in the week, which felt like a fun appetizer leaving you hungry for more. It’s a little unfair to compare Harry’s favorability to Meghan’s when he’s held the beloved underdog crown for so long. His demeanor has always been more Diana than Charles and he wore his emotions in the Oprah interview. It’s important to remember that Harry did not volunteer to be a royal. He was born into a social construct that was in part responsible for the tragic death of his mom. He made it clear that he did not want history to repeat itself with his family and, for that alone, I give him major kudos. Ranking: Very favorable
Kwittken’s view on the royal family...
Sadly, I don’t think that any of the big reveals about the family or the firm were at all shocking or surprising. It also took them nearly 48 hours to respond and I’m sure there was great debate behind closed doors about what to say if anything at all, knowing too that silence equals complicity. I found their response to be terse, corporate, vapid, passive-aggressive and flat out irresponsible. And in this age, you don’t get to work out serious issues like these privately when the public pays for your ’service’.
I don’t think most Americans (very small polling on my part) support the crown and have long felt that the monarchy was antiquated and out of touch. I am an eternal optimist and hopeful that this is not just a moment for the royal family, but instead a movement towards creating systemic and sustainable changes – especially when it comes to addressing racism, mental health and individual freedoms.
Frankly, it’s a caste system that may have just been castrated by Oprah. Ranking: Unfavorable
The UK verdict
Jane Wilson is a communications consultant and former chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.
Wilson’s view on Meghan...
If you were already on ’Team Meghan’, then you are likely still a supporter. Equally, if you watched with a view that Meghan is a selfish schemer who turned poor Harry’s head, then you likely still hold that view. And if (like me) you couldn’t care less before, then you probably still don’t. My point is that whatever they said in the interview (and for full transparency, I didn’t watch the whole thing) was never likely to change minds in the UK. However, it’s what happened after that may have the most enduring impact on Meghan’s reputation.
Mental health charities and 41,000 people complained to Ofcom when Piers Morgan said during Good Morning Britain’s highest-ever rated show that he didn’t believe a word of her claims. Now, no matter where you sit, it would be hard for even the most ardent royalist to justify Morgan’s vitriolic response. Perversely, his actions may, more than the interview itself, have had the unintended consequence of enhancing the duchess’s reputation. Ranking: Neutral
Wilson’s view on Harry...
Harry’s reputation is defined by different rules from Meghan’s. This is in part because of the UK’s bizarre relationship with the royal family. Like Kathy Bates in Misery saying ‘I’m your biggest fan’ before breaking James Caan’s legs so he can’t leave, many people in the UK and its media want to own the thing they love. And any deviation from the unwritten rules results in a metaphorical broken limb. Harry has much on his side. He’s royal by birth, he’s a male (they’re treated differently to royal women), he has served his country on the frontline and he is the son of the much-loved Diana. He also talked to universal themes of being a parent and protector, encouraging the viewer to put themselves in his position. From the reactions I’ve seen online, he seems to have come out of it marginally better. Ranking: Neutral to favorable
Wilson’s view on the royal family...
I am continually baffled by the British public’s obsession with the royal family, but I also recognize that the monarchy has a track record of rolling with the punches of public opinion. They have weathered worse than this, adapted and survived. They are likely to endure, but perhaps this is a Darwinian moment where they evolve into a new, slightly different version, hints of which can be seen in the uncharacteristic statement released on Tuesday. This statement in itself deserves its own poll as a combination of vague denial and ghosting wrapped up in a big fluffy blanket of inconsequential familial concern. Remember though that this is a family where first cousins headed up every side in the First World War... they’ve had bigger public fights than this and certainly, while Elizabeth remains Queen, this is unlikely to do much damage. Ranking: Neutral
Mark Borkowski is one of Britain’s best-known publicists and founder of Borkowski PR.
Borkowski’s view on Meghan...
There is a generational split on Meghan. Many in Gen Z and the younger cohorts find her candor and vulnerability to be a welcome change from the monarchy’s stone-faces. Meghan, unlike the rest of the royals, speaks in terms that resonate with young people. She talks about the issues they care about – racial and gender equality, mental health and overcoming personal trauma. In the UK, some older people criticize her for ‘acting’ in the interview, but they’ve got it all wrong. It’s not as if she’s an actor and the royal family aren’t. She’s simply a better actor, able to convey thoughtfulness, authenticity and caring in a time when the rest of the royals stick to the stiff upper lip. It’s a shame because they could have learned a lot from her about how to speak the language of the next generation.Ranking: Neutral
Borkowski’s view on Harry...
Harry is perceived as a supportive husband and loving grandson, who wants to protect his wife from the unhappy fate that met his mother. Though many in the US want to see him reconciled to William, I don’t think there are many who question his motives for the split. Though some question the timing and the way of going about it, most see his intentions as those of a man keen to distance himself from an institution so anachronistic that it eats alive any who marry into it. It helps Harry that he talks so affectionately about his love for his grandmother, and this resonated with young people I spoke to: why is it so often that generational healing skips a generation? That grandparents understand their grandchildren more than their parents ever can? Ranking: Favorable
Borkowski’s view on the royal family...
The worst-hit has been to the royal family itself. Though they’ve written a classy communique suggesting that they will, like so many cancelled celebrities, listen and learn, the interview has been highly destructive nonetheless. Our survey found that the interview changed people’s opinions of the royal family even more than it did Harry and Meghan. This means that Harry and Meghan’s interview hurt the royal family more than it helped them – about 10% more. With #AbolishTheMonarchy trending, we are about to see how good the royal family’s crisis PR outfit is. Whatever you think of Meghan, everyone felt the heaviness of that interview. It was palpable. And the royal family’s reputation is suffering from the responsibility being placed squarely on their shoulders.
There’s one good thing going for the royal family. As any parent knows, they can curry favour – as their latest letter does – simply by reminding the couple how much they are loved and how sad they are about the situation. This does not imply they’ve learned a single thing from the couple’s critiques. Yet the myth of the ungrateful child is stronger and more loathsome than that of the bad parent. (As Larkin said, ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’.) No doubt some young people will wince at the guilt trip in the royal family’s response – we only proclaim unconditional love when it is most conditional. Ranking: Very unfavourable