Harry, Meghan and Oprah: How to Stay On-Brand in an Interview
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey attracted big audiences and triggered copious coverage and debate. When viewed through the lens of a communications strategist and media trainer, there’s a lot to unpack.
To begin, Harry who has always enjoyed positive approval ratings in his home country, for the first time went into the negative. UK approval ratings lifted in anticipation of the interview, but declined after. Although Americans responded more favourably, the latest US polls show that the Queen and William are more popular than Harry and Meghan since the interview. This represents a communications problem because the purpose is to boost approval ratings and strengthen the personal brand.
The couple’s revelations were shocking. But it was their off-the-cuff delivery that surely raised a few eyebrows among PR professionals. That’s how everyday people might approach it, but in the high-stakes world of reputation management, interviews are a complex process involving expert guidance, a bulletproof strategy and ample time to prepare. Standard rules of engagement are used to control the narrative and maintain the carefully constructed image. They elevate the discourse in a way that helps to protect the personal brand. Because once you’ve said it – it’s out there.
Explosive interviews may benefit the network, but can have fallout for the interviewee. Why risk it when it’s possible to be honest, share your story and achieve your objectives without being incendiary? The tone of the interview, more tabloid than tame, was unexpected and felt off-brand for the royal couple, who themselves have been tabloid targets.
Overall, diplomacy is always safer than a scorched-earth approach in interviews or any form of public speaking. Subtlety can set you up for a softer landing. Preparation is critical. Expert communicators are never caught off guard by a question. Tough questions don’t need to be answered directly. If you’re asked about something you can’t discuss, talk about the things you can, instead. Staying in control of the interview is possible with the right training. It’s a popular misconception that the interviewer is in charge. She’s not – it’s the interviewee.
Given the couple’s current situation, a new life in America, a baby on the way, the House of Windsor in the rear-view mirror – following the standard interview rules of engagement may have produced an interview that was more authentic to the royal couple’s brand and endearing to audiences.
How to prep for a high stakes interview:
Consider the timing. Assess what’s going on in the world to make sure it’s the right time to tell your story.
Before committing, do a risk and opportunity analysis to make sure you have something meaningful to gain.
Keep the interview tight. The longer they go on, the greater the chance you will lose control.
Do your research. Know your interviewer, and your audiences. Do a media audit and analysis of social listening reports to gauge sentiment and perceptions. This helps inform the process.
Establish a clear objective and have a strategy for achieving it.
Sketch out a compelling narrative that supports your objective, make sure it’s on-brand.
Develop statements and analyze them based on anticipated repercussions, modify and test them until the desired communications outcome is achieved.
Deeply evaluate the risky areas, develop tightly controlled statements to address them.
Think of every question that could possibly be asked and write strategic answers.
Undergo extensive media training and interview drills.
Following these steps ensures that by the time you’re sitting in front of the journalist you’re ready for anything. You should be able to tell your story effortlessly, unphased by challenging questions. You’ll be able to maintain composure, won’t be caught off guard, and will actively advance your objective – with greater control of the interview, the coverage and your image.
The contents of the Oprah interview will live on long after it airs as part of the permanent record. The key takeaway is: words have power and you need to know how to yield it.
Tara McCarthy is a veteran PR professional and founder of Bulletproof Media Training and NEAT Agency a Toronto-based PR agency collective.