Harry and Meghan’s approach to the media shows that the younger generation are taking control of their image

Article Experience

Harry is miffed at Aunty – also known as The Beeb, AKA the BBC. He is miffed over its article saying that Granny – that is Harry’s grandmother, also known as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – is miffed at him about naming the newest member of the Windsor / Sussex clan Lilibet without her prior approval. Harry is so miffed in fact, that he has had a legal letter sent to the BBC to complain over its reporting.

In the “olden days”, the mantra of “never complain, never explain” might have been run up the royal flag pole in the face of offensive or allegedly defamatory accusations – here, perhaps, alleging insensitivity or disrespect for one’s elders, one’s Queen, one’s “commander in chief” as Harry calls granny. The “turn the other cheek” refrain was good enough for the Queen Mum, who bequeathed it down the Royal family line like a precious heirloom, and thus it was often good enough for her family.

But perhaps treasured more by the older generations than their younger beneficiaries, this credo seems to have got lost down the back of the royal sofa, less cared for than once it was.

The preferred route for Meghan and Harry in the face of negative or unwanted media attention seems to be to reach for the writ – or to lose the alliteration, but to be more accurate, the claim form. “Lilibet-gate”, as we might choice to name it, is the latest in a string of very public legal activities by the young couple: phone hacking litigation for Harry; a high profile privacy claim by Meghan; complaints about paparazzi, drones, baby Archie’s privacy … When it comes to dealing with the media, their first choice appears not to take its unfortunate slings and arrows lying down. Rather, in place of “never complain, never explain” is a new set of rules – loudly complain, and proudly explain. And thereby seek to take control.

On this occasion they reached for their solicitors who wasted no time – or ink as it happens – in penning what might be the shortest letter of complaint ever composed by the oft fulsome fingers of a lawyer. The diminutive dispatch asserted that the article – “Harry and Meghan did not ask Queen to use Lilibet name – Palace source” – was false and defamatory and the (unspecified) allegations contained in it should not be repeated.

Legal action was not overtly threatened, and – perhaps as a result – the article remains online. But “going legal” is clearly part of the arsenal of this creative couple – alongside sensational chat-show interviews and explosive podcasts – seeking to exert control over their own image.
We are rarely winners in the reputation protection competition if we dance with the media devil who will largely sing its own tune of commerciality. So, to a generation familiar with Tik-Tok and World Dance, perhaps taking control and choreographing their own reputation-enhancing dance comes more naturally.

But doing so in itself generates criticism. In Meghan’s privacy case against Associated Newspapers over her letter to her Dad, the defence argued she “was seeking or willing to manipulate her public image, to obtain the most favourable coverage” and that being “ready and willing to publicise details of her own private life and those of others… [while] she does not object to publicity about her, so long as it is favourable” was somehow not cricket. The bald corollary being that a “person who actively seeks the limelight” is a rum one. As we now know, the judge didn’t buy that “broad-brush” argument – Meghan exited the court victorious — at least for now, as the case is under appeal.

But if Harry and Meghan choose to control their images – through the vehicles of PR, lawyer, or Oprah for that matter – they are acting in a very different manner from their forebears. This is not just down to a loosening of the British stiff upper lip — a combination of the omnipresent Internet, accessible smart phones, easy-access apps to correct images (flat tummy, white teeth, clear skin where before there were none), and powerful and popular social media sites mean that we have the tools of control at our fingertips to rival those of the printing presses.

Harry and Meghan’s short, “non-threatening threatening” letter may have been a deliberate ploy, a clear example of their desire to exert control, a PR approach in itself by which to let the world know that they condemn the accusations that Harry disrespected his granny, but without having to issue proceedings to do so. The two lines of legalese, and the many more lines of excitable reporting of even the whiff of potential litigation against the BBC certainly moved the story on.

Quietly turning the other cheek can be the clever response to a reputational attack; spreading a veneer of positivity over negative news with the guidance of expert PR advisers can work a treat; but a privileged whisper in the ear of your trusted legal adviser and an ensuing legal letter – whether honeyed words for conciliation or rapier-sharp and forecasting litigation – may not have been the “go to” for the never complain never explain brigade, but is certainly part of the modern reputation protection pack.