It was 1997. Good news about my newly formed South African PR company spread beyond African borders to England—and into the Royal Palace. The Prince’s Trust, a children’s charity established by The Prince of Wales, had learned of our work. The Trust apparently needed a quality public relations firm to chronicle its philanthropic outreach in a South African township about 45 minutes outside of Johannesburg.
But when the Trust staff first approached me, I was thinking as much like a journalist as a businesswoman. Princess Diana had recently been killed in a car accident in Paris, and like so many others around the world mourning the loss of her beautiful spirit, I watched her funeral and cried. I’d heard that Prince Charles was coming to Johannesburg, and, also much like the rest of the world, I was curious to get his account of Diana’s mysterious death. It was a ridiculously long shot but instead of asking to be paid for my PR services, I offered them for free in exchange for a one-on-one videotaped interview with him.
I was shocked by how quickly they agreed. My company would videotape the Trust during their three-day excursion in the South African township. And I was granted an exclusive with the Prince!
I gathered my camera crew. All day, each day, we videotaped the Trust’s activities. We had planned their visit down to the last detail. My big day was fast approaching and I bubbled with excitement—I had interviewed prominent American politicians, sports and entertainment figures before, but never a prince.
A day or so prior to Prince Charles’ arrival in Johannesburg, I was briefed by the Trust’s staff on protocol: “Stand, and do not move while the Prince is walking in or out of the room.” “Do not approach him, or initiate conversation if introduced.” When introduced to the Prince, address him by his formal title, “Your Royal Highness.” “Don’t touch him,” and “Don’t shout to get his attention.”
All of these etiquette rules seemed reasonable, and I made sure my staff understood them as well.
On the day of the scheduled interview, I wore an exotic, African-inspired business suit. About 50 business people had gathered to hear the Prince speak. My interview would follow his comments. I walked confidently into the room and positioned my crew in the back. I took a seat in the front row right where I knew my cameraman would be able to capture an angled shot of the Prince and me.
I sat nervously along with the rest of the audience, awaiting Prince Charles’ arrival. Out of the blue, the Trust’s staff member with whom I’d been working, came up to me and sheepishly said, “I need for you to move.” I was stunned.
“To the back of the room. I need your seat for some dignitaries, she said. “But what about my interview?" I asked. “You promised. My cameras are ready…we’re ready…you promised.” She responded with a let down I wasn’t prepared for. “The interview will not be possible. The Prince has to leave earlier than planned.”
Swallowing my pride and biting my tongue, I maintained my composure, got up and followed her to the back of the room. Then I got real with her. “I’ve done all the work as we agreed, and now you tell me it’s not happening? I’m not accepting that.”
“That’s the way it is,” she responded and flippantly walked away. Floored, I took a seat near the back of the room.
“Everyone please stand,” someone suddenly directed. “His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales”.
There he was, larger than life, walking down the aisle just a few feet from me. What was I going to do and when? After all, the plans had officially changed. Prince Charles walked to the front of the room and took his designated seat at the front. I didn’t hear a word he said over the passing half hour. My mind was racing; I was too busy plotting a course of action. One way or the other, I was going to get my promised interview.
“Everyone please rise.” It was time for the Prince to leave. We all stood up. And in line with protocol, nobody moved, and no one approached him (of course he was flanked by security). My heart was racing.
He’s-approaching-my-row-what-are-you-going-to-do? I thought.
I started walking nonchalantly toward the Prince and his security guards. “Act like you belong and you will belong,” I told myself. I beckoned to my camera crew to follow me. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say or do—but it was now or never. As I neared the Prince and his security, I yelled out and waved my arm in the air, “Excuse me, His Royal Highness?”
Protocol out the door.
Immediately his security positioned themselves to protect him and stop me from getting any closer. He turned around, and peered between their arms, seeing me staring intently for his attention. “Excuse me — His Royal Highness?” I said again. He stopped and beckoned his security to let me approach him. “Your Royal Highness. Your staff promised me an interview with you, and I know you would want to keep their word,” I said.
He paused, and then replied: “Yes, I would.”
My crew quickly set up the shot, and the Prince and I chatted for a few minutes on camera. I’d made it happen!
Then in a grand, unscripted and quite human moment, he planted a kiss on my right cheek. OMG! Who but me would have this story to tell?
I learned a critical lesson that day. I have always been someone who greatly respects the rules. But I learned that sometimes even protocol must be challenged. When grand opportunities in our lives show up, we have to decide for ourselves to either seize—or miss—the magic of the moment.
7 Fearless Living Tips:
1. Keep your end of whatever deal you make with someone. Keep your word.
2. Hold others accountable for keeping their word with you. You are just as important as they are.
3. Sometimes you may have to fudge on the protocol. Try not to break it, but when necessary, push it to its limits.
4. Be prepared for the unexpected. Think outside the box for solutions.
5. When presented with unpleasant and unexpected challenges, don’t lose your temper. Keep your composure and your wits about you… so that you can think logically and strategically for a positive outcome.
6. Dress your best at all times in business settings so that you will make a positive and professional impression.
7. You don’t ask. You don’t get.
Julia A. Wilson is the CEO and Founder of Wilson Global Communications. A U.S. Department of State Fulbright Grant recipient and international lecturer, Wilson has lived, studied and/or worked in Africa, China, France, Israel and Brazil. Follow her @JuliaWilson_DC #FearlessLiving