Above the Fold: Car Crash PR

by James Underdown

1st February 2019

One thing that Brits love is a scandal involving the Royal Family. So, when news broke on 17th January that Prince Philip, 97, was involved in a collision, the collective ear of the country suddenly perked up and turned to the nearest news outlet.

The details were initially murky, all we knew was that the Prince’s Land Rover had flipped over in a collision with a Kia near the Royal’s country retreat of Sandringham. While Philip was left without any major injuries, Emma Fairweather, who was driving the Kia, broke her wrist in the incident. Her child and another passenger escaped with only a couple of cuts and a scrape.

Although it wasn’t looking good for the Royal’s, the situation was manageable. However, what unfolded over the next ten days was not only a PR nightmare for Philip but also uncovered some interesting truths about the state of the media in 2019.

Historically, Prince Philip is known for being a bit of a loose cannon. In some of his more infamous gaffes, he has called a Chinese student “slitty eyes”, asked an Aboriginal leader “whether they still throw spears at each other” and asked a mobility scooter-bound trustee of the Redbridge Valentine Mansion “how many people he’d knocked over this morning on that thing?”

While his previous, less than politically correct statements were brushed off by the Royal’s communications secretary as just flippant comments made by a tired Royal, there was something fundamentally different about this incident.

Firstly, what differentiates this and anything he had done previously is the severity of the incident. This isn’t just the odd questionable comment made in public, but an accident that could’ve proved fatal. What’s more, to make it an even juicer story for the press, comparisons were made between Philip’s crash and the one that killed Princess Diana 21 years previously. A perfect PR storm was beginning to form over Sandringham.

As the press flocked to Norfolk the only news from the Palace was that Philip was shaken and had exchanged ‘well-wishes’ with the driver and passengers of the Kia. While this probably wasn’t the level of detail the public wanted, it was for the time being, an adequate apology. The Royal press team had done their job and – temporarily – weathered the storm.

Just as the paparazzi were putting their lens caps back on, their dream shot (and the Royal PR teams’ worst nightmare) drove past. Perhaps telling Philip to wear a seat belt whenever driving, especially with a swarm of press outside the gates, was left off the agenda that day, but it is something that certainly shouldn’t have been ignored.

We can be sure that there was many a crisis management meeting that followed, desperately trying to devise a plan that could somehow make this situation slightly less of a disaster. Alas, any plan turned out to be futile.

As we are well aware, journalism is a fast-paced world with reporters churning out story after story and looking for the next big trending topic. It was only a matter of days until an interview with Emma Fairweather was broadcast on This Morning. Fairweather took no prisoners and proceeded to call Prince Philip “insensitive and inconsiderate”, while criticising the apology first given, saying it was a member of the Queen’s personal staff who left a voice message.

At this point, the damage was done.

A week after the initial crash (perhaps a week too long) a second apology was sent out, solemnly accepted by Ms Fairweather. Perhaps Philip’s PR team should be glad that many Brits are proud of their Royal Family. If it had been your bog-standard celebrity involved in a scandal of this size, the damage to their reputation could have been much more significant and lasting.

So, what can we learn from this situation? Well, most importantly, to not fabricate the truth in materials released to the press, the media will most likely find out. In the original statement we were told that Philip had been in touch with the passengers of the other vehicle. We later found out that wasn’t wholly factual. The situation was only aggravated because of this. Another important factor is time. “Strike while the iron is hot” can be applied to this situation, something that his team failed to do.

In the end, what could have been a little hiccup turned into a full-blown PR disaster. It was a situation that could have been handled differently from the get-go, containing lessons which communications teams of all guises would do well to learn to ensure they don’t fall into any of the same traps.