The Duchess of Sussex’s last-minute decision to fly to New York to watch her best friend play a tennis match is being perceived by some as yet another blow to her rather beleaguered public image.
Ironically, it comes at a time when the royal couple are in the process of assembling a formidable team of PR and communications experts to assist them in raising the issues close to their hearts on the global stage.
Barely a week passes without the announcement of a new recruit. Yesterday it emerged that Meghan has her own ‘Hollywood team’, too, consisting of an agent, lawyer and business manager who will be looking after her ‘future career’.
Meghan Markle has hired Sunshine PR to help her public image. It is headed up by Ken Sunshine, 71, (pictured) who has worked for disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and is known for using ‘bare-knuckle tactics’
That bombshell followed swiftly on from news that the Duke and Duchess are retaining a hard-nosed Manhattan PR company which specialises in ‘crisis communications’ for celebrities.
Hiring the firm, Sunshine Sachs — sunny by name, somewhat murky by nature, according to critics in the business — represents a highly significant departure for the couple. Not only, say royal watchers, because PR is traditionally handled by Palace staff, but also because of what it reveals about the U.S. focus of their ambitions.
The small but influential PR outfit’s impressive client list includes Hollywood royalty: Leonardo DiCaprio, Natalie Portman, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Jennifer Lopez and Michael Jackson’s family. It has helped smooth over ‘crises’, from pop star Justin Timberlake’s accidental exposure of Janet Jackson’s nipple when the pair sang at the 2004 Super Bowl — ‘nipplegate’ became a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ — to Oscar-winning actor Ben Affleck’s very messy divorce from Jennifer Garner.
The firm’s founder and head honcho, the winningly named Ken Sunshine, was also in Harvey Weinstein’s corner when the film mogul was first publicly accused of sexually abusing women, issuing strenuous denials on his behalf.
The Sussexes could certainly do with some better PR. But does the solution really lie in turning to a company that was caught out glossing up its clients’ entries on Wikipedia?
Mr Sunshine, 71 (pictured with Weinstein), was once described by the New York Times as employing ‘bare-knuckle tactics’ in his dealings with the media and his determination to protect his high-paying, A-list clients. A leading British publicist describes him as a ‘wily old fox’.
Royal experts have warned that hiring the US firm could threaten the delicate balance between the public and the royal family
Mr Sunshine, 71, was once described by the New York Times as employing ‘bare-knuckle tactics’ in his dealings with the media and his determination to protect his high-paying, A-list clients. (Pictured: Meghan Markle and Prince Harry walk off the field before a baseball game)
The Duchess was a client while she was an actress — she starred in the hit TV legal drama Suits for nine seasons — and remains close to Keleigh Thomas Morgan, who runs its Los Angeles office (one of five in the U.S. employing 200 staff). Ms Thomas Morgan was given a prime seat at the Windsor nuptials of Harry and Meghan in May 2018.
The PR company is also noted for representing celebrities with political causes. Mr Sunshine worked for many years in Left-wing New York politics, and is a close friend of the Clintons and civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
His staunch defence of his clients’ right to privacy — he has denounced press photographers as the ‘stalkerazzi’ — will no doubt have appealed to the Sussexes.
Both Buckingham Palace — whose press chiefs weren’t consulted over the decision to bring in the New York company — and Sunshine Sachs are down-playing the company’s role in managing the royal couple’s public image.
The official line is that it will largely confine its efforts to publicising the Sussexes’ charity foundation in the U.S., but will monitor some of what goes on in the UK. In fact, Sunshine Sachs executives guided the Duchess’s recent guest editorship of British Vogue. Ominously perhaps, that venture was criticised for being too ‘Hollywood’, with Meghan’s list of ‘inspiring women’ confined largely to models, actresses and other celebrities.
Mr Sunshine is certainly a force to be reckoned with. He once boasted: ‘We don’t play it safe, we’re not genteel. We name names and battle the media when we have to.’ In 2015, it was revealed that his staff had been violating online encyclopedia Wikipedia’s terms of service by editing the biographical pages of at least ten of his clients to remove negative material about them. The clients included supermodel Naomi Campbell, actress Mia Farrow and singer Sarah Brightman.
His staunch defence of his clients’ right to privacy — he has denounced press photographers as the ‘stalkerazzi’ — will no doubt have appealed to the Sussexes. (Pictured: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle introduce baby Archie to the world in June this year)
Both Buckingham Palace — whose press chiefs weren’t consulted over the decision to bring in the New York company — and Sunshine Sachs are down-playing the company’s role in managing the royal couple’s public image. (Pictured: Meghan Markle with friends watching Serena Williams play tennis at the All England Lawn and Croquet Club)
In Campbell’s case, the model’s dalliance with pop music was censored. A reference to her 1994 album Babywoman as a ‘critical and commercial failure’ was removed.
Mr Sunshine’s clients have, however, been accused of a lot worse than recording awful pop songs.
In 2015, a 22-year-old Italian model, Ambra Battilana, accused Weinstein of groping her at his Manhattan offices. Ken Sunshine — who had known Weinstein for decades as fellow Democrat fundraisers in New York and who did PR for The Weinstein Company — acted initially as his spokesman, putting out statements on his behalf and assuring the media they were ‘confident we will be fully vindicated’.
Mr Sunshine was later accused of planting spurious press stories that undermined Ms Battilana’s credibility — a charge he denied. A source at Sunshine Sachs insists all ties to Weinstein and his company were cut as soon as the enormity of his alleged offences became clear.
Sunshine Sachs’s choice of clients was questioned again this year when it represented the African-American actor Jussie Smollett after he claimed he had been subjected to a racist and homophobic attack in a Chicago street. From the start, the alleged incident was regarded as suspicious and Smollett was swiftly accused of faking the assault in a cynical attempt to garner sympathy and advance his career.
Sunshine Sachs stresses that handling celebrities in crisis is only part of its business. Its services do not come cheap, although industry insiders predict that the Sussexes’ patronage is such a publicity coup for the company that a hefty discount is likely.
As to who will pay the fees, Palace insiders insist they will be funded ‘privately’.
The Mail understands that could mean the Sussex Royal Foundation, individual donors or the couple themselves. Sunshine Sachs declined to comment on its relationship with the Sussexes last night, although a source said the company would ‘work in consultation with the Palace as per usual protocols for charities and foundations with which the Duke and Duchess are associated’.
Industry insiders speculate that the Duchess, with her experience of Hollywood celebrity and strong-armed Tinseltown publicists, may have been dismayed by what one called the ‘laid-back approach’ of the Palace PR operation.
It remains to be seen how much say Sunshine Sachs will have in the Sussexes’ public behaviour. However, royal watchers are convinced that the real significance of the company’s recruitment lies in what it reveals about the direction in which the couple intend t