By Max Colchester 

LONDON -- Just over a year after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced they would step away from Britain's royal family and move to North America, the couple is embarking on a public relations blitz that will underscore the delicate balance they will need to strike between emphasizing their connections to the monarchy while no longer officially being part of it.

On Sunday, the couple are expected to explain why they quit front-line British royalty in a prime-time interview with Oprah Winfrey.

The lengthy celebrity interview, on television and streaming Sunday at 8.p.m. ET on CBS, marks the culmination of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's effort to take control of how their life is portrayed in the media and bolster what appears, so far, to be a rare example of British royals successfully exiting what is known as "The Firm" to make big money.

But tensions with their former employer are growing. On Wednesday, Buckingham Palace said it is probing allegations made in the U.K. newspaper the Times of London that the Duchess of Sussex bullied aides while working there. The Duchess of Sussex denies this.

Meanwhile, a teaser clip of the Oprah interview shows the duchess accusing the palace of "perpetuating falsehoods" about her and Prince Harry. "If that comes with risk of losing things, I mean there's a lot that has been lost already," she says.

An unseemly public spat risks tarnishing the monarchy and in turn the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's nascent brand, says Rita Clifton, a former chairwoman of branding consulting firm Interbrand. "Like any branded relationship you want to make sure both are valuable and you don't want your association to be killing the golden goose," she says.

Initially, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex tried to keep a foot in the royal family. They trademarked the brand "Sussex Royal" and hoped to emulate other minor royals who keep their military titles and undertake some royal functions while holding down jobs. But officials at Buckingham Palace said no. The Sussex Royal brand was dropped and, last month, all formal ties were severed.

This total split came as a blow to the Sussexes, according to officials. But it may prove a commercial boon for the couple, who are now free to leverage their royal background without interference from Buckingham Palace, says David McLure, who has published several books on the British royalty's finances.

After moving to Montecito in California last year, the Sussexes created Archewell Audio LLC and Archewell Productions LLC to create audio and video content. They also founded an Archewell foundation to support their charity work.

They have signed an agreement to create content for Netflix Inc. and another to present podcasts for Spotify Technology SA. The multiyear deal with Netflix is worth in the region of $100 million, according to people familiar with the matter

They are signed by the Harry Walker Agency to do speaking engagements. The terms of those contracts aren't public. The couple no longer receive a stipend from Prince Harry's father, Prince Charles, or funds from U.K. taxpayers.

The Sussexes could become a billion-dollar entity over the next decade if they chose to endorse products such as cosmetics or clothing, says David Haigh, the chief executive of Brand Finance PLC, a British brand-valuation company.

But much depends on whether the content they produce for Netflix or Spotify is popular and if they can stay on good terms with Queen Elizabeth, he says. "They would make more big money if the whole thing was done in an amicable way."

So far, the couple are playing a cautious hand. They appeared at a conference run by JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Miami last year. The Duchess of Sussex recently narrated a Disney nature documentary about elephants, a project she started before leaving the royal duties. A Spotify podcast just after Christmas featured the couple's son, Archie. The duchess has invested in an instant-coffee brand.

The closest they came to controversy was a Prince Harry video appeal before the U.S. election for people to reject "hate speech, misinformation and negativity," which some commentators saw as an aside against then-President Donald Trump and a violation of the royal family's longstanding political neutrality. Prince Harry's advisers denied it was.

"The palace will be worried," says Mr. McLure. If you quit the British royal family "you still have the royal glitter on your shoulders whether you like it or not. So you will monetize links to the monarchy and you will be potentially embarrassing to the monarchy."

Last month the couple said that they remained "committed to their duty and service to the U.K. and around the world" and advisers play down the idea that they would do anything that is not in keeping with these values.

The British monarchy is littered with examples of royals trying to go private. Queen Elizabeth's youngest son, Prince Edward, launched a TV-production company that later shut down. His wife Sophie, Countess of Wessex, ran a public-relations business but was caught on tape making critical comments about Prince Charles.

More traumatizing was the queen's uncle, the Duke of Windsor, who abdicated as king in 1936 to marry a divorced American. To supplement his royal stipend the Duke of Windsor later sold his memoirs and appeared in several magazine interviews. He ended his days living in exile just south of Paris. Other extended members of the family have also cashed in. The queen's eldest grandson once fronted an ad campaign to sell milk in China.

Royal interviews going wrong are also a staple. The queen's second son, Prince Andrew, had to step down following a botched interview in 2019 where he tried to explain his friendship with the deceased sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Royal observers questioned the wisdom of interviews in which Prince Harry's parents, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, talked about their failed marriage.

Prince Harry has said a major motivation for leaving the U.K. was to get away from the media. Princess Diana died in 1997 in a car crash while being followed by paparazzi.

After Prince Harry married Meghan Markle in 2018, the couple struggled with the level of intrusion into their private life and how the palace managed the British press, according to one official. In the U.S., they hope to find a more respectful media, according to one person familiar with their thinking.

Last week, the prince appeared on James Corden's "The Late Late Show" where he was interviewed on a double-decker bus touring Los Angeles before crawling through mud at a military assault course. Prince Harry played down his decision to split with the monarch. "It was stepping back rather than stepping down," he said. The prince said the British press were destroying his mental health. In leaving the country, "I did what any husband [or] father would do," he said.

On the same day as the interview with Ms. Winfrey, Queen Elizabeth will also be on the airwaves. The queen and her immediate family, including her two direct heirs Prince Charles and Prince William, will mark "Commonwealth Day" -- celebrating a club of nations that were mostly in the British Empire -- and pay tribute to those countries' handling of the pandemic. Buckingham Palace officials say the timing of the special program on the British Broadcasting Corp. is pure coincidence.

Write to Max Colchester at max.colchester@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 07, 2021 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)

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