When a queen dies: the lesson in public communication from the BBC

In the early afternoon of September 8, 2022, Buckingham Palace issued a statement announcing that the queen’s doctors were concerned about her health of the monarch. The mere issuance of this note put the media on alert, since the queen’s state of health is not an issue that the monarchy has openly shared so far.

The BBC immediately canceled all programming and began a live broadcast that followed the events in real time., no matter how slowly the communications were issued. Social networks and forums burned for hours, with comments on the repetitions that BBC presenters had to resort to, led by the prestigious Welsh journalist Huw Edwards, given the apparent lack of news during the first hours of the afternoon.

However, hidden in the repetitive speech of the BBC is a master class in communication in the health field from a public relations perspective that follows the principles of the CERC of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the United States. United in crisis situations, especially when it comes to an issue as transcendental as death.

Speak or shut up?

First, the issuance of the statement was the voice of alarm and led to the BBC suspend regular programming. Rumors of the queen’s failing health have proliferated as she has advanced in age, but Buckingham Palace has always remained silent.

The reasons for avoiding any communication is that the mere fact of talking about an issue gives it importance and undermines the monarchy’s need to project an image of stability and strength, especially after the Prince Andrew scandal and the problems, still unresolved, with Harry and Megan.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

The BBC presenters they treated the health of Elizabeth II repeatedlynever straying too far from the official statement that the queen’s doctors were concerned about her health, although the queen was “comfortable” Y “under medical supervision” which became repetitive at times.

This communication technique is not, as it may seem, the result of a lack of information. Although we believe that the messages arrive in their first broadcast, in reality it is necessary to repeat the information so that the public assimilates the news, even more so when it comes to health problems that can end with the death of a person. The truth is that we don’t like change or hear bad news.

It is shown that when we deliver bad news about health and death, patients need information repeatedsometimes even using different words.

Euphemisms and ambiguity

The palace statement said the queen was “under medical supervision” “comfortable and relaxing”, and it was emphasized that the queen was receiving the necessary treatments. They avoided going into details, since doctor-patient confidentiality is also maintained in this situation.

The important thing about this first and only statement before the death of the monarch is that both phrases show ambiguity, since they do not give any clear information, and could well be applied both to treatment for influenza and to a palliative process.

Throughout the afternoon, and as members close to Elizabeth II arrived at Balmoral, the BBC presenters insisted on the importance of these trips, inviting the public to read between the lines.

carefully chosen words

Much of the BBC’s coverage on the evening of 8 September was done in the present tense (“the queen is”), although by exceeding three hours of broadcast, the presenters betrayed themselves in using, probably due to fatigue and to the stress of the situation, the present perfect and even the past, always correcting themselves a posteriori.

After the confirmation late in the afternoon of the death of Elizabeth IIone of the first signs of Queen Elizabeth’s death was the use of the term “king” to refer to his son Carloswho inherited the throne immediately after the death of his mother and therefore ceased to be Prince Charles.

This immediate transfer of office is evident in the famous maxim The King (Queen in this case) has died. long live the kingwhere the immediate inheritance of the throne is proclaimed.

How to narrate death

The Spanish bioethicist Montse Esquerra reminds us, in her book Talking about death to live and die better: How to avoid added pain and suffering at the end of lifethat we must understand death as a process, a history, and not only as an event, since “Narratives create emotional and cognitive unity, they unite us as a group”.

Although part of the public has criticized the BBC’s coverage of September 8 as repetitive, it was a lesson in international communication on a taboo subject such as death.

And it is that death scares, saddens and changes the world, but it is also part of life and, as a society, we must have the words and the discursive and narrative resources to face it.

Morbidity or duel?

Mobile phone version of the BBC website immediately after the communication of the queen’s death.

Secondly, death also attracts. This was demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands of people who tuned in to the live broadcast on the evening of September 8 and trusted the BBC to follow what we knew without a doubt, given the circumstances, would be a historic event.

It is true that the BBC repeated the same information throughout the afternoon of September 8e, but it was nothing more than a narrative exercise to prepare an entire nation, and the entire world, for the death of Elizabeth II.

During this process, which lasted almost 4 hours, the repetition of information, the comments of the journalists and certain symbolic elements, such as their black ties and the use of black instead of red on the BBC website, were resources and tools to prepare the nation as a whole for the queen’s death.

The importance of time

The stock market was given time to close and many workers to finish their working day and return home to reunite with their families. Because, regardless of individual sympathies with the monarchy, the death of the queen has brought with it the now famous Operation London Bridge, which affects the daily life of the people, starting with twelve days of national mourning.

There was, then, no other way to confront an entire country with the queen’s death until the official confirmation of Elizabeth II’s death at 6:30 p.m. London time.

Being a political, social and cultural event, lThe death of the queen had to be treated calmly and linearly, only with confirmed official information, without speculation, but letting the public read between the lines and prepare for the worst outcome for the monarch’s health. It was a respectful, extremely professional broadcast that honored the long reign of Elizabeth II.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original here.


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