Controversies surrounding the royal family, from historic to very recent, meant the death of the Queen was always likely to divide opinion. And divisive events have always spelled trouble for brands – wherever you stand, you risk upsetting someone.
In this situation, even if a brand stays quiet it risks being chided by some for not paying sufficient respect. So what is PR telling its clients to do?
To make the situation more complex still, it stretches out for a long time. The official royal mourning period will last for a further seven days after the Queen’s funeral until 27 September.
For fervent royalists, that may be an appropriately long time for the UK to mourn someone of the stature of the Queen, but it also allows a very long time for a brand to slip up – and social media is a very slippery place at the best of times.
That’s why social specialists Rise at Seven quickly advised all its clients to “go dark on social, email and all marketing for the day”, says Will Hobson, the agency’s PR and London director.
“We then advised that, if desired, a tribute to the Queen could be posted on-site or over social media. However, this was not to be at all commercial, or for any clout. I think from a brand perspective that is where you should draw the line – at a tribute and a respectful message. I wouldn’t go any further as it can be seen as profiting or inappropriate. A celebration can come at the coronation of the king, which will be more appropriate for brand engagement.”
The situation is problematic for brands that traditionally revel in the lively atmosphere of Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, says Mark Borkowski, founder and agency head of Borkowski.
“The issue for brands is that they have invested a lot of energy in cultivating an aura somewhere between ‘your mate from the pub’ and ‘kids’ television presenter’. This means that when a bit of gravitas is needed, they are suddenly flying blind. As a result, most brands fall into one of two categories: attempts at quirky levity that some find crass, or solemn marks of respect that are often either unintentionally hilarious or destructive.
“In the former category you have the likes of CrossFit and their ‘tribute’ workout with numbers loosely associated with the Queen crassly crowbarred into their usual meathead fare, and Playmobil’s jarringly jolly tribute using one of their figurines dressed as the Queen.
“On the other side you have Wetherspoon’s touching closure of their condom-dispensing machines, Center Parcs eye-gougingly awkward reverse ferret on the unwise decision to kick out thousands of families on the Monday of the funeral, or the litany of earnest tributes – from Ann Summers, to ScrewFix, to Shrek’s Adventure – that, no matter how solemn or dignified, simply looked like they were taking the proverbial. It’s a fine line and few brands have trodden it with any degree of success.”
Center Parcs awkward volte-face combined with a double backward flip-flop is perhaps the standout example of how not to go about things – although it’s by no means the only brand to have found itself flailing in this febrile climate – and others have delivered quick, brilliant and well-thought-out comms during this time.
The sensible approach is to step back and be sensitive, says Andy Cameron-Smith, director of Social Net Zero.
“It’s important to be aware of the environment and the mood of the country. Everyone will have a different view when it comes to how they handle comms in unprecedented times such as this, and my advice is to be respectful and understand there will be conflicting views. Good advisors can read the situation and will be mindful of their client’s voice and that of the wider organisation.”
He also notes the importance of internal comms at a time when there may be employees who feel bereaved. “Do not lose sight that attention needs to be given to internal communication as well as external,” he says. “This should not be all about focusing on brand positioning, but also about being reflective of staff emotions at this time. Ultimately, choose your words carefully; they have to reach a wide variety of audiences who will all be reacting in their own way.”
People will continue to react in different ways for a while to come – some will mourn, others will call for the monarchy to be abolished, most will fall somewhere in between. There are no easy answers to this one. But the situation does highlight one truth: dark times always offer good comms a chance to shine.
(This article first appeared on PRWeek.com)