Eleven Hundred Agency

PR in unprecedented times

By Jacqueline Booker

Over the last week or so, the news in the UK has been dominated by the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The BBC has had rolling coverage since the news first broke that there were concerns for the Queen’s health, with newsreaders dressed in black ahead of the likely news of her death. When the story broke at 6.30pm on Thursday 8th September – the media shifted gear – with programme schedules cleared to focus on running material on the life of the Queen and her service.

This was to be expected. The death of a Monarch – particularly one who has had a 70 year reign in the UK (the longest of any British monarch and second longest serving monarch in history) – was always going to dominate headlines and override existing programming schedules. Whatever your views on the Queen or the Royal Family, this has been a real moment in British history and one which the media was always going to cover heavily.

Looking at the news, not as British citizen with a soft spot for the Queen and her tireless service (which I am), but as a PR professional, I can safely say that in my 17+ years in the industry, I’ve never seen a single event have such an effect on the practices of the media. In the wake of Her Majesty’s death, TV programming immediately shifted to pre-recorded programmes about the Queen’s life. ITV and Channel 4 – British channels that depend on the revenue from advertisers – ceased commercial adverts between programmes. Televised sports events for the weekend after the Queen’s death were cancelled. Radio channels only played sombre music. Strictly’s launch date was shifted.  

This was all done out of respect to her late Majesty – following protocols established long before her death. I have watched on mesmerised – fascinated by the impact on the UK news agenda. At a time when the UK, like other countries across the world, is heading into a cost of living crisis, when a new UK Prime Minister has only just been appointed, while war still rages on overseas – it is incredible to see one event, granted an exceptional event, push these important stories further down the media’s headlines.

For companies too – it has been a challenging time to manage. Which companies should put out messages of condolences on their websites or across social media? Should events be cancelled out of respect? Should press releases and news announcements be delayed? Should operations close due to the Queen’s funeral? We’ve all read the unfavourable coverage surrounding Center Parcs and its u-turn on sending guests home on the day of the Queen’s funeral. We can all empathise with what a difficult day it must have been for its PR office.

There are no easy answers here for PRs. These are unprecedented times and I think, as in most of life, we need to apply a degree of common sense to our outreach and work. When it comes to extraordinary events such as these it pays to know your clients, to understand their customer base, and to think and act quickly. Proceed carefully and don’t just jump on the bandwagon if it’s not appropriate to your company.

For now – the media frenzy continues. I will continue to watch on, fascinated as the world continues to devour news on our queuing system (only in Britain) and the history of arguably the most famous woman in the world.