The Royal Family's Biggest PR Disasters And How They Handled Them

"Never complain, never explain" is the royal family's unofficial motto, and it has been around for ages. It is said that the Queen Mother borrowed the phrase from Benjamin Disraeli, a former British Prime Minister who served in the 19th century. Royal author Tracy Borman told People that this motto could very well be the reason Queen Elizabeth II's reign was so fruitful. "The very lack of personal drama has arguably been the secret of Elizabeth II's success," Borman says.

"The Queen only responded when she absolutely had to and it was often short and succinct," author and royal correspondent Katie Nicholl told Time. The queen's statements were few and far between until all hell broke loose between the Sussexes and the British media. The queen released several statements regarding Harry and Meghan, the first of which was a response to them announcing their plan to take a step back from their royal duties. More statements followed after the couple's explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey. Prince Andrew's alleged sexual misconduct also warranted a few official statements from the palace. 

When it comes to scandalous tabloid stories or wild rumors, however, the palace has always remained dead quiet. And, for the most, part, it's worked. But it's no secret that the royal family has suffered plenty of scandals in the past couple of years — and sometimes, staying silent has done more harm than good.

Princess Margaret's rocky love life put the royals in a bad light

Princess Margaret was quite the royal rebel, and the palace had its hands full with her shenanigans on more than one occasion. Margaret's first love affair was with Group Captain Peter Townsend, who was not only 15 years her senior, but also a divorcee. The year was 1947, and marrying a divorced man or woman was frowned upon at the time. 

In the end, Margaret was given an ultimatum and told that marrying Townsend would result in her losing all her royal privileges. The couple went their separate ways and Margaret put out a statement to let the public know that she would no longer marry Townsend. "Mindful that Christian marriage is indissoluble and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others," the princess said (via the Evening Standard).

By the time 1960 rolled around, Margaret married fashion photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, but their marriage fell apart after both of them had affairs. Divorce wasn't an option, so the palace released a statement informing the public that Margaret and Antony were separating. "Her royal highness, the Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, and the Earl of Snowdon have mutually agreed to live apart," the statement read (via Harper's Bazaar). The palace made it clear at the time that there were no plans for a divorce, but the couple did end up getting officially divorced in 1978.

Princess Anne and Sir Timothy Lawrence's love letters got leaked to the press

Not only did Queen Elizabeth II's daughter Princess Anne get divorced, she also remarried. Anne married her first husband, Captain Mark Philips, in 1973, but it wasn't exactly a happy marriage, with rumors swirling that they were both engaging in affairs. Still, the world was pretty shook when love letters between Anne and Queen Elizabeth II's equerry (personal assistant), Sir Timothy Lawrence, made their way into the hands of the press in 1989. Luckily for Anne and Lawrence, the internet wasn't a thing just yet, but the popular British tabloid, The Sun, revealed that these letters existed and claimed that it had been in possession of them before deciding to hand them over to Scotland Yard.

There was, of course, plenty of speculation about the author of the letters, and in a surprising move, the palace released a statement and revealed that the letters were written by Laurence. "The stolen letters were addressed to the Princess Royal by Commander Timothy Laurence, the Queen's Equerry. We have nothing to say about the contents of personal letters sent to Her Royal Highness by a friend which were stolen and which are the subject of a police investigation," the statement read (via People).

Anne divorced her husband in 1992 and got married to Lawrence in December of the same year, making history as the first child of the monarch to ever remarry after their divorce.

King Charles III and Princess Diana's revelations about their marriage were a PR nightmare

Few scandals have rocked the royal family as much as the fraught relationship between King Charles III and Princess Diana. The two were locked in an unhappy marriage, and in the end, they were more than happy to let the public in on all the drama.

Charles threw all caution to the wind and sat down for a TV interview with Jonathan Dimbleby in 1994 to speak about his relationship with Diana. Astonishingly, he admitted to having an extramarital affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. Diana decided to clap back and granted her own TV interview a year later. The princess didn't hold back, and revealed she'd known about Charles' affair all along. "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded," the princess said (via Insider). She also spoke openly about all the pressure she'd endured as a member of the royal family, and that she dealt with postpartum depression, self-harm, and bulimia as a result. Then, just when everyone thought it couldn't get any worse, Diana revealed that she, too, had an affair.

The couple's unhappy marriage wasn't a good look for the royal family, and Queen Elizabeth II reportedly spoke to them after and recommended they get divorced. While the palace never commented on either Charles or Diana's interview, it did release a statement to announce their divorce.

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King Charles III and Princess Diana's conversations with their lovers were leaked to the press

King Charles III and Princess Diana's marriage troubles hounded the royal family long before the couple spoke about it on TV. A PR nightmare ensued when a recording of a conversation Diana had with James Gilbey in 1989 was published in 1992.

The recording made it clear that something had been going on between Diana and Gilbey. Gilbey asked her to kiss him and called her "darling" and "squidgy" a couple of times. This was no doubt an incredibly embarrassing situation for both Diana and the royal family, but the palace never officially commented on the recording.

The royals barely had time to catch their breath before the next public scandal, which came in the form of another very intimate leaked phone conversation between Camilla Parker Bowles and Charles. This was, in many ways, way worse than the conversation between Diana and Gilbey. The call also took place in 1989, but was first published by an Australian magazine in 1993. "I'll just live inside your trousers or something. It would be much easier," Charles said to Camilla, and then voiced the idea of becoming a, erm, tampon so he could do just that (via Today). Unsurprisingly, the palace didn't respond to the leaked call — what on earth do you say to that, anyway? — but we're pretty sure that quite the drama was playing out behind the castle walls.

Sarah, Duchess of York, was photographed vacationing with another man

1992 was not a good year for Queen Elizabeth II. Not only did she have to deal with Princess Diana and Prince Charles' intimate phone conversations getting leaked to the press, but Sarah, Duchess of York, and Prince Andrew also officially separated that same year.

Not long after, Sarah was photographed vacationing in Saint-Tropez with her financial advisor, John Bryan, and the two did not try to hide their affection for each other. They were seen cuddling, kissing, and, erm, toe-sucking. Sarah also discarded her bikini top at some point. The duchess and Andrew were not officially divorced at the time. What made matters worse was that Sarah was canoodling with her lover while her daughter, Princess Eugenie, who was only two, could be seen watching from the sidelines. Welp!

Harold Brooks-Baker, who was the director of Burke's Peerage at the time, told the Washington Post that Sarah's extracurricular activities could not have come at a worse time for the family, saying, "This is just one more nail in the coffin of [the] monarchy." The Washington Post also reported that the British tabloid The Sun ran a poll, in which readers could vote on whether they thought "the royal family is now such a laughingstock that they should call it a day." Oof! The palace released a short statement, condemning the photographs. "We strongly disapprove of the publication of photographs taken in such circumstances," it read.

Queen Elizabeth II's initial reaction to Princess Diana's death wasn't well-received

Princess Diana's untimely death plunged the world into mourning. No one could have predicted the ripple effect of her passing. The public was mourning the princess as one of their own, but the royal family, most notably Queen Elizabeth II, remained quiet in the immediate aftermath of Diana's death. The press started calling out the queen: "Show Us You Care," Express' headline read. The Mirror also called for action from the queen: "'Your People Are Suffering. Speak to Us Ma'am," one of its headlines pleaded. The Sun outright questioned the queen's absence from London and her lack of a statement: "Where Is Our Queen? Where Is Her Flag?" one headline enquired.

No one could possibly fathom what the royal family went through in the aftermath of Diana's death, but the public was heartbroken, and they wanted proof that the royals were, too. The queen's lack of an immediate statement made her appear indifferent to the tragedy. In a surprising response to the public criticism, the queen's press secretary, Geoffrey Crawford, released a statement. "The royal family have been hurt by suggestions that they are indifferent to the country's sorrow at the tragic death of the Princess of Wales," the statement read (via the New York Times). Crawford added that the queen was putting all her efforts into comforting her grandsons. The queen eventually addressed the nation the day before Diana's funeral and delivered a moving tribute to the princess.

Prince Harry went to rehab

Prince Harry, like other royal rebels before him, has given the palace plenty of reason to put out a few statements a couple of times, most notably when he went to rehab for an entire day. Royal sources told The Guardian that Harry, who was 17 at the time, received a stern talking-to from his father, then-Prince Charles, after which he admitted to using cannabis a couple of times. He also confessed that he had a tendency to drink excessively. Charles acted swiftly and arranged for Harry to attend rehab in an attempt to open his eyes to the effect addiction can have on someone's life.

Harry paid a visit to Featherstone Lodge, which caters to heroin addicts. The media quickly got wind of it and the prince made some headlines. A senior palace official later confirmed Harry's visit to Featherstone and that he'd used cannabis in the past. "It is not that he had or has a serious problem, but he did take the drug," the official revealed (via Hello! Magazine). "The Prince of Wales thought it would be educational and shocking for him to attend. A large number of heroin users have, over the years and in the course of his work, told the Prince of Wales that they started on cannabis."

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...And he was photographed wearing a Nazi suit

Prince Harry was in very hot water back in 2005 when he wore a Nazi costume to a party. As fate would have it, the paparazzi were nearby (as they tend to be), and photos of the prince in the costume were splattered across the front page of "The Sun" the following day. Needless to say, this was an incredibly bad look — not just for the prince, but his entire family.

People were, understandably, outraged. "I think a lot of people will be disappointed to see that photograph and it will cause a lot of offense," Michael Howard, a jew and the British opposition Conservative Party leader at the time, said in a statement (via The New York Times). Dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, Rabbi Marvin Hier, also expressed his outrage over Harry's choice of costume and suggested that the prince pay a visit to the Auschwitz death camp and familiarize himself with what the Nazi costume represented. "There he will see the results of the hated symbol he so foolishly and brazenly chose to wear," Hier said.

The prince issued a public apology soon after. "I am very sorry if I caused any offense or embarrassment to anyone. It was a poor choice of costume and I apologize," his statement read (via CNN). Harry addressed the incident again in his Netflix docuseries, saying that wearing the costume was "probably one of the biggest mistakes of my life."

Two royals were caught stark naked

In 2012, Prince Harry attended a pretty wild party in Las Vegas, which resulted in some naked pictures of the prince making their way to the front page of several tabloids in the United States. Clarence House confirmed that the pictures were indeed of Harry, but didn't comment any further (as is royal protocol). In a surprising move, the palace requested that British media outlets not publish the pictures of Prince Harry, appealing to the Press Complaints Commission. The tabloids obliged, but the pictures were still freely available on U.S. websites, unfortunately.

Harry isn't the only royal who was caught stark naked. Princess Catherine dealt with a similar situation (at no fault of her own, however) when she was photographed without her consent while vacationing in France at a private chateau with Prince William. Catherine was sunbathing without her bikini top when the photographs were taken. They were published in the French magazine "Closer," and quickly made headlines around the world. Catherine and William ended up suing the outlet and won the case. In a statement released by the palace after the legal victory, it called the photographs "a serious breach of privacy," adding that "their royal highnesses felt it essential to pursue all legal remedies" (via The Guardian).

Prince Andrew destroyed his reputation in a BBC interview

Prince Andrew's controversial friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein made waves for all the wrong reasons, and the palace had to scramble to save face, especially when Virginia Giuffre came forward with allegations that Andrew sexually assaulted her when she was 17. The prince consistently denied the allegations, eventually sitting down for an interview with BBC in an attempt to dispel all the rumors and restore his reputation. Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened.

Per the Los Angeles Times, BBC reporter Sam McAlister said that Andrew's revelations in the interview were "a prosecutor's dream." Emily Maitlis, who interviewed Andrew, was shocked when the prince failed to express any concern for Epstein's victims and admitted that he didn't regret his friendship with the disgraced financier. Andrew also failed to call it as it is, saying Epstein "conducted himself in a manner unbecoming," without ever outright referring to his old friend as a sex offender.

Instead of restoring his honor, the interview put the prince in an incredibly bad light and the palace announced four days later that Andrew would be stepping down from his public duties. After failing to quietly settle the lawsuit with Giuffre, the palace released a statement in which it announced that Andrew had been stripped of his military and royal titles and would be "defending this case as a private citizen." The palace has remained tight-lipped about the prince ever since.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Meghan Markle's letter to her father was leaked by the press

In 2018, Meghan Markle wrote a letter to her estranged father, Thomas Markle, in an attempt to persuade him to stop granting interviews to the press and badmouthing the royal family. In the Netflix docuseries "Harry & Meghan," Meghan reveals that Queen Elizabeth II and then-Prince Charles suggested she use this form of communication. Unfortunately, the press got hold of said letter, and all was laid bare — Meghan's hurt over her father's betrayal and his treatment of her and the royal family was out there for the world to read.

While Buckingham Palace didn't release an official statement, Prince Harry did, condemning the tabloids for publishing the contents of the letter in the first place and announcing that he and his wife would be taking legal action. "The contents of a private letter were published unlawfully in an intentionally destructive manner to manipulate you, the reader, and further the divisive agenda of the media group in question," the prince said in the statement. He went on to call the tabloids bullies and said that legal action was the only way to stand up to them. "There comes a point when the only thing to do is to stand up to this behavior because it destroys people and destroys lives," the prince continued. The couple won the lawsuit in the end.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry stepped down as working royals

It's no secret that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had to deal with their fair share of drama while working for the royal family, but people didn't expect them to actually leave the fold of the monarchy altogether. When the couple took to Instagram in January 2020 to announce that they'd be stepping back from their royal duties, the world was shocked.

"We intend to step back as 'senior' members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen," the couple's statement read. All hell broke loose once the post was up on Instagram. The royal family appeared divided, and this was one of those times when a statement from the palace was very much warranted. The very same day, a short, terse statement was released in which the palace confirmed that it was having discussions with the Sussexes about their exit. "We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through," the statement concluded.

The queen later released a statement as well, ensuring the public that Harry and Meghan remain "much loved members of the family." She also took a moment to acknowledge the challenges Harry and Meghan faced because of the press and voiced her support for the couple.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry granted a bombshell interview to Oprah Winfrey

In 2021, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle sat down for a tell-all TV interview with none other than Oprah Winfrey, and they didn't hold back. The couple spoke openly about the struggles they faced as working royals, and how the monarchy did nothing to protect them from the onslaught of the press.

"[N]ot only was I not being protected, but [...] they were willing to lie to protect other members of the family," Meghan told Winfrey (via Insider), adding, "They weren't willing to tell the truth to protect me and my husband." She added that there were questions about what the color of Archie's skin would be, but neither she nor Harry said which family member(s) asked these questions. Harry did, however, make it clear that it wasn't Queen Elizabeth II or Prince Philip. Meghan also opened up about the mental health struggles she faced, admitting that she had suicidal thoughts at one point.

The interview made headlines across the world, and while some expected the palace to remain quiet, a statement was released shortly after the interview aired. The queen expressed regret over the hardships Harry and Meghan had to face, and also voiced her concern over the issues of race they addressed in the interview. "While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately," the statement concluded (via The Guardian).

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Many A-listers are refusing to perform at King Charles III's coronation

The world is gearing up for King Charles III's coronation on May 6, but some of the A-list stars the king hoped would attend aren't. The likes of Adele, Harry Styles, Elton John, The Spice Girls, and Kylie Minogue all reportedly declined invitations to perform at the coronation concert, with some citing scheduling conflicts as the reason. What's even more shocking is that music industry experts aren't shy to share their thoughts on this.

Speaking to Rolling Stone, publicist Simon Jones said that the royal family has had a few PR disasters too many in the past couple of years, and people took notice. Kingsley Hall, a member of the band Benefits, said that people are tired of all the royal drama. "We've had so much exposure and negative exposure of the royal family – jubilees, weddings, fallings out, accusations of racism, notable deaths, someone being accused of being a sexual predator – in what I would classify as a short space of time," Hall said. Jones added that artists have their reputations to consider. "Anyone performing at the show would have to consider whether there would be a backlash from appearing amongst their fans," he pointed out.

The palace didn't respond to any of these comments. Organizers did manage to bag Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Take That as headliners for the coronation concert, though. Thanks to them, the palace may have narrowly avoided yet another PR disaster.