The art of holding your tongue

pCloud Premium

LONDON — There’s a scene in “The Wire” that goes like this: The police chief is tormented, realizing he is in a no-win situation; if he acts one way, he loses; if he acts another, he loses too. What should he do?

In frustration his wife tells him, “You cannot lose if you do not play.”

In turning on its head the classic American advice about not winning if you don’t play, she neatly sums up that sometimes the best course of action is to go against human nature and popular wisdom and do nothing. Let sleeping dogs lie.

I was reminded of this as I watched Prince Andrew showing how to make a bad situation far worse in his interview with the BBC’s peerless Emily Maitlis.

Somehow, he’d persuaded himself that if he could just tell his version of events, he’d be exonerated.

Reviews have been universally negative and the interview will go down in history as one of the biggest public relations disasters ever.

He failed to realize that people have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception and cut themselves slack that they wouldn’t extend to others in exactly the same situation. In reality, the best advice Prince Andrew could have received, given the facts as he told them, was that if he played, he would lose — and badly.

Maitlis and her team landed the interview after a year of negotiation. She didn’t put a foot wrong, never grandstanding or making the interview about her as other more ego-driven presenters might have done, instead choosing to set out the facts in a manner that was beautifully understated.

She might hope that her professionalism and reasonable approach will persuade others to subject themselves to the court of public opinion in this manner. I fear she has had the opposite effect.

PR advisers will use the interview as an example of what happens when you take a big risk. In this age of social media, of near-constant rolling news, Maitlis showed that big TV moments still matter. Watching politicians — and their advisers — would be wise to reflect on the lesson.

Prince Andrew may have sounded reasonable in his own mind as he thought about his powers of persuasion, but in reality all he did was kick the hornets’ nest — repeatedly.

How not to justify yourself

Reviews have been universally negative and the interview will go down in history as one of the biggest public relations disasters ever.

I learned that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing when I was director of politics and communications for David Cameron.

My head would be in my hands watching politicians think they could talk their way out of any situation they had acted themselves into. At one stage the Treasury team was desperate to subject the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, to a 20-minute grilling after the U.K. had lost its treasured “Triple A” credit rating.

They had previously made so much of its fabled status that I could see a relentless battering of quotes saying that such an event should be seen as a disaster. Better to let the opportunity pass and handle it in a more low-key manner. There was a two-hour bruising row — which I just about won. The interview didn’t happen and the news agenda moved on.

Prince Andrew may have sounded reasonable in his own mind as he thought about his powers of persuasion, but in reality all he did was kick the hornets’ nest — repeatedly.

For a start there was the dreadful claim that he had visited Jeffrey Epstein in New York to tell him they couldn’t be friends anymore, rather than simply calling him, “Because of my tendency be too honorable.” This made him sound like the person in a job interview who, when asked what their greatest weakness is, claims: “I’m loyal to a fault and too much of a perfectionist.”

But the worst problem was that Prince Andrew failed to express any empathy for Epstein’s victims.

The clip will be used in media training interviews for years to come as a grade A example of how not to justify yourself.

It got worse as people pieced together that he had flown to New York to see Epstein two years after he was convicted of sex offences. And as for supposedly telling someone you can’t be their friend anymore in the most public place in the city, Central Park, well, the least said, the better.

Claims he wasn’t known as a party animal and he didn’t sweat because of a condition he picked up while being shot at while serving in the British navy during the Falklands War met with a stream of images of him on social media of him partying and sweating.

The list goes on. If you want to present as humble and not entitled, why hold the interview in Buckingham Palace?

He looked and sounded like a man who wouldn’t let advisers tell him the blunt truth: This interview isn’t going to look or sound credible.

But the worst problem was that he failed to express any empathy for Epstein’s victims. Maitlis virtually served the opportunity up to him on an (appropriate) silver platter at the end, when she asked: “Is there anything you feel you’d like to say that you haven’t?”

Any PR adviser worth their salt would have drilled into him: “Don’t do this, but if you must — tell people your experience is nothing compared to the horrors underage girls went through because of the monster that was Jeffrey Epstein.”

Prince Andrew had nothing to add, compounding an earlier error where he couldn’t bring himself to say that he regretted the friendship.

If there’s a way back for Prince Andrew, it’s not clear what it is. Perhaps the best advice to give him after such an unmitigated disaster would be to quote former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee telling Labour’s Harold Laski: “A period of silence on your part would be welcome.”

Craig Oliver is former journalist and director of politics and communications at No. 10 Downing Street and is now a principal at Teneo.

pCloud Premium

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.