The Warrior Prince and the reporters

Harry's presence in Afghanistan provided the Army with an extraordinary PR opportunity. James Shelley, director of news at the Ministry of Defence, tells Chris Green how he managed a delicate story

"From our perspective, the media blackout was complete common sense: we went into this with our eyes open, and so did the media. The previous strategy of announcing everything openly in Parliament had led to circumstances where it all fell through. It was obvious that if we were to be successful, we'd have to do something quite fundamentally different: that was why we took the decision to start engaging with the media very early. Throughout the operation I worked hand in glove with Colonel Ben Bathurst, the assistant director of PR for the Army, and Bob Satchwell, the executive director of the Society of Editors. We split the work into three areas: pre-deployment, during deployment and post-deployment.

In July we called a meeting for all of the national newspaper editors and television executives which we held at the Ministry of Defence's media suite. That collection of people knew more about news and the way news is driven than I could ever hope to, but they didn't raise anything we hadn't already thought about. At the initial meeting there was quite a lot of scepticism about whether or not we could maintain a blackout, and we also had to reassure them that we weren't trying to pull a fast one. But the more engagement we had with the media the more we were able to deal with the issues they raised, and as the months progressed there started to be a real sense of confidence in what we were doing. We also learnt a lot from them, and from the Clarence House team: they had already managed a media blackout when Prince William went to St Andrews, although that didn't really compare to this in terms of scale or complexity. I know it sounds like a paradox, but the operation wasn't about Prince Harry per se – it was about the safe and successful deployment of a soldier.

Some people might say that having an agreement that nobody signed was old-fashioned, but I'd disagree. I'd actually argue it was quite forward-thinking. We were aware of the threat that the story might get out, but to a degree the whole thing was self-policing, because nobody would want to be the one to break it. The criticism that would've been levelled at them would have been extreme. But if they really wanted to, I wouldn't have been able to stop them: the whole understanding was always reliant on editorial compliance. The bottom line was: is it worth giving it a go? And everyone seemed to agree that it was, because at the end of the day it was really about the security of Prince Harry and those he was serving alongside.

We agreed to send a series of four-man teams to shadow Harry during his tour. The Press Association would cover the story for the print media, and each broadcasting company would rotate so they would all get a chance to do some filming. The first media pool left for Afghanistan on 28 December, after the Prince had done a pre-tour interview with the BBC. Then we started monitoring the internet for any signs of a leak. There was a lot of Googling going on, but with the internet it's almost impossible to get a cast-iron guarantee that there's nothing being done. We did enjoy the benefit of having journalists on our side, and knew they'd let us know if anything cropped up.

We always knew there was a chance that someone in the foreign media might run the story. And on Boxing Day, eight days after Harry had been deployed, I got a call from CNN, saying they knew that he was in Afghanistan and that they were planning to run a story on it. If they had, it would have been a catastrophe: but we just told them what our intention was and brought them into the understanding with everyone else. My working presumption was that of course people would talk. We knew that soldiers might ring their families and say 'you'll never believe who's out here'. But who would they take it to? I knew that if there was no outlet for the story, and if everyone held the line, we stood a good chance of maintaining the blackout.

The most challenging part of the whole thing was after the story was out. There were also some very surprised faces in the MoD press office, because only a few members of my team knew about the agreement before then: in fact, more members of the media knew about it than people in the MoD. We had to ensure that everyone got what they wanted out of it, from the broadsheets to the broadcasters to the big local papers. If just one of them felt that they hadn't got enough, the whole thing would've been a failure. So we were all forced to work flat out, making sure the correct embargoes were in place and generally getting very little sleep. It was like any story that generates hundreds of pages of newsprint and hundreds of hours of broadcast material: everyone felt like they owned a slice of it, and they all wanted their piece.

I think it would be possible to come to a similar arrangement with the media in the future. But I don't believe that this example should serve as a template for all other cases: it shows that we can work together, but every case is different, so we'll have to wait and see. It would be totally dependent on the specific circumstances at the time, and who knows what these might be next time? As before, we'd have to think very carefully about what we could deliver to the media.

How successful the whole thing was is really for others to gauge, but from our perspective we're just very pleased we managed it, and kept a lid on it for 10 weeks. PR and media relations are often looked down upon by the private sector, but I think we've shown them what we can do now. The MoD also gets kicked hard when it gets things wrong, but I don't think we got anything wrong here. We certainly had our critics, but in general I think most British people have accepted that it was the right thing to do."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Advertising Sales Consultant - OTE £30k

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Gloucestershire's most innovati...

Recruitment Genius: Telephone Advertising Sales Consultant - OTE £40k

£18000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Gloucestershire's most innovati...

Recruitment Genius: Advertising Sales Consultant - OTE £50,000

£24000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Gloucestershire's most innovati...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders