Prince Andrew's guide to handling the press

Two communication experts share lessons from the Duke of York's disastrous BBC interview.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 25 Nov 2019

Prince Andrew’s recent Newsnight interview was a cautionary tale in how not to handle the media. The Duke of York intended for the interview with Emily Maitlis to clear his name and win over the general public. Instead, it caused a lot of embarrassment for the Royal Family and cast further doubt over his relationship with the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.  

The interview was a masterclass in poor communication: strange body language, poor wording, and bad chemistry with his interviewer all worked against the Duke.

However, his loss may be your gain. Any leader or manager who has dealings with the press can learn from his mistakes.

Before you try to break bad news, apologise for mistakes, or explain why events took place, check out these tips from communication experts Emma Serlin, founder of the London Speech Workshop and author of The Connection Book, and Martin Currie, managing director of PR firm Citypress.

Get professional advice

The Duke’s first mistake, according to Currie, was to ignore the professionals, who would have advised against this interview in the first place. "Given the hours and pages of content media has to fill, a good crisis can be a gift. Rather than fuel the fire, it’s often better to give that first response then retreat and monitor. Unfortunately for Prince Andrew, consenting to the interview just gave the story another burst of oxygen. That was a strategic error for him and a major coup for Newsnight," says Currie.

"In a crisis, whether personal or business, you’re at your least objective," he adds. "Your judgement is impaired because of your involvement. That’s why it’s important to get advice from those who are less invested and can provide impartial counsel. This is particularly true when a crisis affects a personal reputation, as in Prince Andrew’s case. Human instinct is to retaliate and justify, which invariably backfires."

Establish your modus operandi

"Prince Andrew went in with the wrong attitude," says Serlin, who coaches leaders on becoming more effective and powerful communicators. "If you think ‘I’m going to screw up’ when going into a meeting or interview, that comes across. His central thought was, "I want to clear my name and show everyone I’ve done nothing wrong", so everything he said was defensive. 

If he’d gone into the interview thinking, "I want to take responsibility for what I’ve done, apologise for my association with that man, and express compassion for his victims, that would have come across."

Take care with your body language

The way you sit can speak volumes, expressing defeat or overconfidence. According to Serlin, Prince Andrew’s posture did him no favours: "He looked too comfortable," she says. "He was leaning back, spread out, with his legs crossed, and his head on one side. Compare this to Emily’s body language: she is very upright. This is a seminal point in her career so she is leaning forward. 

His position suggests: ‘I’m important and powerful’. That is not a good look for someone who has screwed up. He exuded arrogance. A straight spine says: I am alert, sincere and earnest."

It’s also important to avoid any nervous tics you may have (this is where external advice again comes in handy). "Prince Andrew shook his head a lot when he was vociferously claiming no guilt," says Serlin. "When you have an important point to make, it is better to be still. The movement breaks the connection with the person you are speaking to. And although the Duke controlled his hands, keeping them in a power position favoured by Angela Merkel [former German Chancellor], with his fingertips touching, his foot was wagging a lot, giving away his true feelings."

Use eye contact

Serlin adds: "Always make eye contact when you are reaching the end of your point or thought. That is where your ideas have power. Prince Andrew would make eye contact but then look away at the end of his statement. If you say something is important but then look away as you say the important part, no one will believe you."

Bond with your interviewer

When you are dealing with the press, especially in a face-to-face interview, take the time to really listen to their questions and forge a meaningful connection, says Serlin. "The Duke kept sweeping questions away and shaking his head. If he had said, 'I understand why you are asking me that’, or 'I get why you want to know this’, it would have helped build a connection. He seemed to look down on her. Good leaders listen and engage, and show humility and dignity."

Know when you’re beaten

Currie says: "Remember, we’re dealing here with the court of public opinion, which is highly judgmental and fickle. When the evidence is overwhelmingly damning, the best course of action is often to express regret and to act with compassion. You have to subjugate any personal interests for the greater good of the brand, in this case the Royal Family."

That’s one thing that Prince Andrew did get right - after the interview, he withdrew from the public eye before he created any more drama. "Although it should have been sooner, withdrawing him from royal duties and rescinding his patronages was the right course of action by Buckingham Palace," says Currie. 

"Interestingly, the Queen was also photographed out riding with Andrew last weekend, showing the public that, for all his faults, she’s also a mother and human - an important message when the Royals are facing criticism for being disconnected."

Image credit: Karwai Tang / Contributor via Getty Images

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