When is a joke no longer a joke? When Kate Middleton and human tragedy is involved

Kate M MoD

The Duchess of Cambridge
Credit the MoD

We all know the story, but now it has happened we can stand back and look at the PR lessons. First, the story: on December 5th, two happy go lucky DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian at the hitherto unknown Sydney-based radio station 2Day FM, had their scoop of a lifetime – they managed to dupe an unsuspecting nurse in a hospital to put them through the ward where the Duchess of Cambridge was undergoing treatment for severe morning sickness in the early stages of her pregnancy. She is the future Queen Consort of England – unless there’s a Republican coup – and her progeny will be the future King or Queen of England depending on sex.

The story unfolds

Wow – THE scoop of a lifetime for two previously unknown DJs and a radio station whose name s were broadcast and tweeted around the globe. They were elated. But two days later, 7th December, they were not.

The nurse at a London hospital, who took the prank call believing the two DJs to be Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, was found dead. The Royals expressed their sadness. The family issued a brief and dignified statement about their tragic loss.

However, Rhys Holleran, chief executive of Southern Cross Austereo, which owns the Sydney-based radio station 2Day FM, had a different spin on the event. He issued a statement: apparently they had not broken any laws broken. So that’s alright. Someone committed suicide, but nothing to do with me.

Well not everyone agreed. Companies pulled their advertising, the media ran with the story.
And oh, did those jubilant DJ’s rushed to apologise? Well no actually, they went into hiding. Message? Hey, don’t hound us – that’s our job, it’s what we do to innocent members of the public. Leave us alone.

Eventually – nearly a week later, 11th December to be precise, the DJs opted to face the media with a tearful display of ….well I wasn’t quite sure what it was a tearful display of – certainly not contrition.

They gave no apology, just ‘gut-wrenching’ emotion. Incredulously they said that they hoped ‘that the public are respectful of their (the bereaved family of the nurse) privacy’ – woah! just like you did? They had the audacity to say ‘If we could call you we would’ – how do you think that would gel with the bereaved family whose wife/mother had previously been duped into taking a call from them? And as for their part in the whole disaster, they said: ‘There’s a process in place for those calls or anything that makes it to air…And you know, that’s out of our hands, this was put through the filter that everything was put through before it makes it to air.’ So nothing to do with them as to why it was put on air.

So what should they have done?

By their actions, the TV station branded itself as a grubby little outfit with DJs who can’t take the flak.

Whether or not they should or should not have done it, getting information by pretending to be someone else (it’s all part of the debate over phone hacking, doorstepping, going through bins), what should or could they have done to have stopped the rot and salvaged their reputation?

Well first take it on the chin and take if from the top – it was the job of chief executive Rhys Holleran, to immediately issue a statement and apologise unreservedly for the part they had played. General Petraeus knew what to do – he took full responsibility and accepted the consequences of his action. As a result he stayed nearly squeaky clean and his reputation just about intact. By talking about their legal rights, Holleran just branded his radio station as a grubby little outfit that no advertiser worth its salt would advertise on – which proved to be the case.

Understand your quarry – these were no normal celebs. Love them or hate them, republican or royalist (and the British Royals have always been a controversial subject in the former colony of Australia), the iconic Kate and Wills (Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in more formal circles) have raised the Royal brand far and away above Charles and Di in terms of international public opinion . The Royal wedding last year was no Kim Kardashian bash!

A devout Catholic nurse from Indiahad fallen for a silly prank, and had committed suicide. OK the DJs couldn’t have predicted that, but certainly they could have pieced enough of it together after the event to realize they needed to ‘take it on the chin and take it from the top’.

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