When more bad news than good news makes headlines

Article 27 January 2022 Experience: Media and reputation

The British royal family is never far from the news – but as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her platinum jubilee, it seems that it is more bad news than good news making the headlines, with brand-bruising attacks coming both from afar and from too close to home, as the Prince Andrew sexual assault litigation and the continuing rift between Prince Harry and the family, lob reputation-rubbishing incendiaries from across the Atlantic.

The horrendous headlines being suffered by this most notable of families is a reminder that a fall from grace can happen to anyone. Perhaps it’s not a little ironical that Meghan Markle – whose own public statements about the royal family have added to the negative noise – made that very point in her “victory speech” after having won her privacy claim against Associated Newspapers Limited over the unauthorised publication of her “Dear Daddy” letter. Applauding the court for holding the Daily Mail to account, she opined, “as far removed as it may seem from your personal life, it’s not. Tomorrow it could be you.”

And in fact, she’s right. As a media lawyer and reputation adviser I’ve acted for heads of state and heads of high-net worth families and organisations; I’ve also advised private individuals from headmistresses to head chefs. I’ve taken instructions in penthouses and palaces (I’ve had the considerable honor of attending one of her Majesty’s Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace – not as a lawyer to take instructions I should add, but as a private citizen to take tea). I’ve given advice in hotels and hostels. But whether these issues pertain to the boardroom or the bedroom, while its clear that the lives of the protagonists differ, whatever their role or position their reputation is inevitably their most valuable but potentially most vulnerable asset. The impact of toxic allegations on any of us can be fatal to our reputation, and the need for reputational remedy our highest priority.

If a line from Spider-Man is to be believed – and why not? – with great power comes great responsibility. And it is for that reason that accusations are more frequently levelled at the titular heads of families, businesses, charities who ultimately bear the responsibility for the actions of the organisation they represent. While many heads roll as a result of nasty news, others may be a cut above the rest and appear indestructible. We’ve seen Her Majesty the Queen embody an ethereal quality throughout her reign, rising above the mire below. But with the loss of her husband and her own health issues, the gilt may even be coming off the monarchy as it is chipped away at by recent scandals.

Prince Andrew has lost his recent strike out application, allowing the sexual assault claim in New York to proceed against him; he has lost his military titles, affiliations and patronages; he has lost the use of his HRH; he has lost, outwardly at least, the support of Buckingham Palace as he defends the litigation as a private citizen; and win or lose the case, he has lost his reputation. Of course, Prince Andrew is not your run-of-the-mill private citizen – he does still live near his working mum, but his pad is a royal lodge in the grounds of Windsor castle and his mum is working as the Queen of England. But similar to any high-profile individual – public figure pop star or politician caught out in a scandal or private citizen family man caught up in a news story – his life has changed as a result of the litigation and the media spotlight shone on it.

So too has the life of his nephew Prince Harry. Where Andrew has lost, Prince Harry the Duke of Sussex, has gained; he has gained a celebrity wife in the form of actress Meghan Markle; he has gained a family, with the birth of his second child; he has gained a new home in the United States, with built-in celebrity chat-show friends Oprah and Ellen in the Hollywood hills; he has also gained notoriety for the seemingly unbridgeable rift between him and his family.

But whether these members of the royal family are winners or losers, they face similar issues to we mere mortals when it comes to litigation and the media spotlight that it attracts. Litigation is not for the fainthearted and even with a full team of full-time lawyers on board it can be a time- and energy- consuming task for lawyer and client to work together as a team to a successful resolution. As a reputation lawyer I’ve worked with clients intensely 24-hours a day over relatively short-lived crises, as well as resolutely over weeks and months resolving more longstanding issues. But in either situation and in all those in between, the client plays a vital role, being available to give instructions, to listen to, and to take advice.

The litigation brought against Prince Andrew has caused many to wonder whether he is taking the advice being given to him. While you can take a horse to water, you can’t make him drink, the saying goes; and while you can advise a client, you can’t force that client to act on your advice. But the weight of negative attention over ongoing litigation can be extremely heavy, and a client is wise – despite their protestations of innocence, or lack of liability, or their confidence in their case – not to lose sight of the reputation aspects as they fight the litigation battle.

I have assisted many clients over the years who have risked losing close business and personal associations as a result of entirely false allegations, because third parties are as frightened to touch the hand of a reputation-impugned, now former friend as the pandemic fist-bump showed we were afraid to touch the hand of a Covid-infected colleague. Where accusations are demonstrably erroneous, I’ve helped many clients rehabilitate and reestablish important relationships; where there are lingering doubts the restorative work may take longer, but it is essential to continue to work hard to rinse off the stench of damaging allegations at the same time as working hard to win the litigation.

This does not appear to be working well for Prince Andrew.

In related news…

Amber Melville-Brown is frequently sought out to comment on The Royals and Prince Andrew’s continuing battle against sexual assault charges, with stories appearing in the following publications. Amber also wrote for The Times on Meghan Markle’s recent court win on privacy grounds and how it might give ammunition to the UK Government to push back against free speech claims.