Brand Strategy Business Leadership Public Relations (PR)

How PRs guided brands (and saved some from themselves) after The Queen’s death


By Jennifer Faull, Deputy Editor

September 14, 2022 | 8 min read

In exchange for anonymity, communications specialists spill the tea on what it was really like being on the front line navigating brands through this historic moment.

Queen Elizabeth II

Billboards go dark for Queen Elizabeth II

For 48 hours following the death of The Queen, comms teams and PR professionals were the first port of call for companies unsure how they should respond.

Uncertainty had been brewing since the Thursday morning, with one PR telling The Drum how he had been spending the morning with the media, facilitating filming for a charity campaign due to launch the next day, when the journalists around him began to receive alerts.

The Palace had issued a landmark statement saying that doctors were concerned for The Queen’s health and that she was being kept comfortable. “The journalists warned us this was going to take over the news. They knew what was coming.”

Sure enough, by the time he got back to the office the decision had been taken to pause the campaign. The press launch was axed and social media influencers were told to hold off on promotions. “They shut it down.”

Across town, another PR exec within an ad agency had just hit ‘send’ on a press release announcing the launch of a client’s major new TV ad campaign. “We had literally got the release signed off that morning and issued it that lunchtime,” she explains. “Then came the news that The Queen was ill.“

She says that the agency’s account director then spent the next few hours going back and forward between the client, the media agency and the media owners, debating whether to go ahead with the launch that night.

‘It was the CEOs, CMOs and CFOs ringing me personally’

As the world’s media hastily set up on the periphery of Buckingham Palace, clients began making frantic calls asking what they should do if the worst happens, explains the owner of an agency that specializes in crisis comms. “The phones were ringing off the hook from about 3pm onwards and didn’t stop for two days.”

What surprised him, he says, was that brands’ internal communications departments were being shut out. “I usually deal with those teams on crisis comms, but this time it was the CEOs, CMOs and CFOs ringing me personally. I found myself saying ‘trust your team’, but they wanted an agency opinion.”

Many of those calls from the C-suite were to ask what other big brands had planned. “I was taken aback at the size of some of the companies that had clearly put no thought into this. There were global brands that had nothing in place, no plans for these situations.”

A PR agency owner with almost three decades of experience running her own business, handling multiple clients across different sectors, tells us how she moved early to hit the brakes on planned activity for the remainder of that week. “It was obvious the direction things were moving.“

With a couple of big campaigns due to break, she says: “We started telling clients ’have a think about what you want to do before the morning’. We were trying to be front-of-foot. Some heard us, but others chose to ignore and were steadfastly plodding on.”

‘Most got it, but some were tone deaf’

Of course, the decision on what action to take came much sooner. By 6.30pm that day, Buckingham Palace confirmed The Queen’s death. Unlike brands, most broadcasters, publishers, media owners and platforms had processes in place for the passing of the nation’s longest-serving monarch. They went into mourning mode and immediately paused all advertising on commercial stations, out-of-home and online media for two days.

At media agencies that had been primed to release big new campaigns, retractions were swiftly being issued. An exec at one tells how his client felt it would be more appropriate to pause its new spot until later in the month. “But then they came up against a problem with media owners in that some were unwilling to pull the ads for any longer than their 48-hour blackout unless they were in direct conflict with the royal family.”

The brand CMO and the media agency are still in negotiations with certain media owners about what happens to the significant ad budget they’ve invested, but not all clients have been so attuned to the situation.

The PR agency owner that we spoke to tells us how, “once the penny dropped on the enormity of this moment and the tsunami of reaction across the world on social media” her agency started advising all clients to stop all activity until at least September 20, the day after the funeral. “Most got it, but some were tone deaf and have continued, regardless of how crass, naff or disrespectful it is. Some turned it into an opportunity.“

She reveals that one client – despite all her emails and calls beseeching it not to – went ahead with a big comms push that will “at best have no response, but at worse will have negative impact on the brand“. “It has been very revealing about the kind of organization we’ve been working with and how they see the world,“ she says. “There has been a big misread.“

Now, she is diligently recording every interaction with said client in anticipation that, three months from now, she’ll be faced with complaints about why the activity didn’t achieve the KPIs they’d agreed. “I’m keeping it all in writing and recording everything. Response rates will not be anything like what it wants. Unfortunately, apart from covering ourselves in that way and putting every bit of advice in bold and underlined, there’s little we can do.”

‘Consumers don’t give a crap about an FMCG brand commenting on societal affairs’

As we saw in the hours following the Palace’s announcement, too many brands – from Playmobil to Pizza Express and The British Kebab Awards – were too quick to share their ill-judged messages of condolence. So what guidance would these trusted PRs and crisis comms specialists offer corporate giants on paying their respects on social media?

Without fail, all of the experts we spoke to say that, unless your brand is one of the 800 or so with a royal warrant or well-recognized connection to The Queen, it is strongly advised to simply stay silent. They stand by that advice for comms on the day of her funeral.

“If you have a royal warrant then it’s fine to put something out there, but otherwise just shut the fuck up,” stresses our crisis comms specialist. “Brands were worried that by not saying something they’d be seen to be disrespectful. Consumers don’t give a crap about an FMCG brand commenting on societal affairs. And no brand that hasn’t put out a statement has had feedback from customers saying they really should have.”

At the downright bizarre end of the spectrum, one ad agency tells The Drum they had a brand (not UK-based, it is important to note) brief them to create a tactical stunt. “We told them to fuck off.“

Aside from talking brands down from ridiculous ideas of how to insert themselves into this seminal moment, most PRs are expecting the next seven days to be quiet. Clients are actively avoiding PR opportunities, they say, declining interviews that are likely to run before the funeral and continuing to put major news releases on hold. “We need to wait until the mood changes,“ they all agree.

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