“Language is like a a slow-acting poison.” I could not stop thinking about these words spoken by my old Latin teacher, Marcel Demuynck, when watching the remarkable interview of Meghan & Harry about their resignation from the British Royal family, or as they liked to call it, ‘The Firm’. What seemed like a casual conversation in a beautiful South-Californian garden, was in fact a careful mise en scène. Every word, even when unpronounced, was carefully weighed and measured. And very well targeted.
Obviously this is a godsend for tabloids around the world, who will have quite a few news cycles to fill with this. But for communication experts, there is a lot to dig into as well.
Besides the art of the “grip and grin” and breeding chickens – we’ll get to that later– the ducal couple proved themselves to be masters in the art of framing. To help them master this art, they could rely on the world’s most empathic listener, who also happens to be their very good friend.
Framing is a subtle but powerful communication technique. It allows you to convey a complex and very intimate message to a big audience. By looking for things that audiences can relate to, you connect to their view of the world. The story becomes familiar, you portray yourself as one of them… and ultimately win them over.
A good frame has a clear structure and is usually composed of 6 main elements. First, you build a positive narrative by offering a solution to a problem. Next, you make the story personal by introducing some archetypical characters, i.e. a hero, a villain and a victim. Thirdly, in order to engage with your audience, you set a moral foundation underpinning your actions. To round it up, you make your story ‘stick’ by choosing the right words and analogies. Finally, you look for telling images, which have become ever so important in our current visual culture. We talked about the importance of images and video before on this blog.
The story the Duke and Duchess of Sussex unleashed upon the world, is a classic example of skillful framing. An analysis:
The surprising and unprecedented decision by Harry and Meghan to step back from their royal duties within the House of Windsor is presented by the couple as the solution to the problems they were facing, rather than the only choice they had left to solve the issue they were confronted with. Their happy and relaxed appearances on well-chosen media are there to confirm that this was the right choice.
There are two main problems our heroes claim they needed to escape from: the suppressive power of the British Royal Family as an ‘Institute’ and the ruthless sensationalism of the British tabloids. Harry and Meghan avoid any personal attacks and refrain from naming individual family members. The Queen herself comes out pretty much unscathed. They portray the other family members as passive pawns who submitted themselves to the system, thereby reinforcing their own courage in actively addressing the problem.
Every good story has a hero, a villain and a victim. All these can be clearly identified in their story. Harry and Meghan have quite obviously cast themselves as the heroes, who bravely released themselves from the shackles of the suppressive system in which they felt trapped, unlike poor Lady Di who fell victim to this toxic system.
Princess Diana – God rest her soul – still fulfills the role of the symbolic victim of the Institutes and the Tabloid even 23 years after her death. Their heroic step-down will save Archie, Harry and Meghan’s first son, from also becoming a victim. The villains? You guessed it.
The moral basis Harry and Meghan chose for their story is freedom, which seems a like an obvious choice as no one would want to deny any young couple the right to their freedom. However, freedom in itself would not suffice as a strong moral basis for their actions. After all, the general public might consider this but a small sacrifice in return for the many privileges they enjoy as members of the royal family.
Another element must be thrown into the mix to top it all off. That’s where the racist card comes in. Racism is universally a moral line which may not be crossed by anyone, not least by the royal family. The fact that the couple did not want to get into the details of the racist act during this “interview without taboos” is irrelevant. The mere reference to racism as such serves as an unshakeable moral basis.
Words and metaphors
Bearing in mind the quote I started with, the word choices and metaphors in the interview are textbook material. Particularly for communication experts.
By consistently referring to the Royal Family as “The Firm” or the “Institution” , words which are often used by anti-monarchists, Meghan pitches herself as the independent young women versus the cold and stifled monarchy. An easy 1 – 0 for Meghan vs. the Monarchy.
The one metaphor where she really pulled out all the stops was when she compared herself to Ariel from Disney’s Little Mermaid. For those who are not familiar with the story: the mermaid Ariel falls in love with handsome prince Eric. Ursula the evil sea witch allows Ariel to visit Eric on land. In return for legs Ariel must give up her voice. But fear not, the story has a happy ending: prince Eric kills Ursula, Ariel finds her voice back and they lived happily ever after. The resemblance is uncanny.
For those who wonder why on earth Meghan, Harry and Oprah continued their interview within the confined space of a chicken coop… it’s the frame, stupid! The chicken that scurried around merrily were mercifully rescued from the battery cage by Meghan herself. Any resemblance to the golden cage she and her husband escaped from is… not purely coincidental.
In short: those who thought this was a spontaneous and candid conversation with two young people pouring their heats out, probably still believe in fairy tales. But fear not, there is absolutely no harm in that.