As the world prepares to say goodbye to Queen Elizabeth, I began to think about all her ups and downs and what PR lessons she has taught us. Over the course of her almost 70-year reign she continued to maintain a high degree of respect for the House of Windsor, commonly referred to as “The Firm.” It gets this name because it really is an organization just like many other large businesses. So, her lessons are ones which we can admire and even adapt in our own work.
So, what has the Queen taught us?
First, as we often say, words matter. In her case these words were always carefully chosen whether it was cutting the ribbon on a new factory, launching a new ship or opening a new hospital. Yet, her most important words came in times of crisis for the United Kingdom. Over the course of her reign, she had to deal with the decline of the United Kingdom in the form of decolonization, often in parts of the globe where the Empire’s record of cruelty and even slavery was abhorrent. What to say to the people of these countries as they departed the UK? In 1957, she offered these remarks, “Today things are very different. I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice, But I can do something else. I can give you my heart and my devotion to these islands and all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.” With just a few words, “I give you my heart,” she did her part to melt away all the previous atrocities committed.
Second, the Queen taught us that admitting personal challenges while evoking public sympathy can be a powerful PR salve. In looking back at a terrible year for the Royals in 1992 – a fire at Windsor Castle, scandalous photos of affairs involving the Duchess of York, the divorce of Princess Anne and the separation of Charles and Diana, she humbly admitted some of these challenges and seemed to accept criticism, a rare royal admission when she said, “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. There can be no doubt, of course, that criticism is good for people and institutions that are part of the public life.”
Finally, we have learned about the enormous importance of even small gestures. Fast forward to 1997 after the death of Princess Diana, when many Brits were looking for words of comfort from the Queen but, instead the Queen and the royal family seemed to circle the Balmoral wagons and, at first, not say a word, despite the urgings of then Prime Minister Tony Blair. Eventually the Queen came to London and in a speech once again showing the power of words and humility, she said, “What I say to you now as your queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart.”
She went on to pay tribute to Diana, but her real masterstroke came as the funeral cortege passed Buckingham Palace and the queen bowed her head. Commentators were shocked saying with that single solemn nod of the head, she reversed all of the imagery and did indeed begin to turn the situation around.
Words, humility and gestures – these are the three most important lessons from the Queen and ones we can certainly put into practice in our work advising clients.