Can Schofield and Willoughby recover from Queen’s queue fallout?

Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral was an emotional event for many Britons. It allowed the nation to reflect on the passage of time, to deal with the loss of a historic figure, and to unite in criticism of the ITV presenters Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby for supposed queue-jumping offences.

The presenters of This Morning went from national sweethearts to national villains after they were accused of avoiding the eight-hour queue to see the Queen lying in state by entering Westminster Hall via a side entrance.

A petition to have them axed from the ITV’s show has now reached more than 55,000 signatures, while their meme-ification continues across social media and tabloid headlines. Domino’s Pizza tweeted: “Apologies to anyone waiting on their pizza, we’ve just received an order from Holly and Phil,” and the London Dungeon said it would let any guest who asked for a “Holly & Phil” at the door to gain queue-jumping rights for the same price as a standard ticket.

Schofield and Willougby’s defence was simple: their visit to Westminster Hall was “strictly for reporting” and they respected the rules set for the media. But for many of their viewers the damage was already done.

“I think the problem stemmed from them not making it clear before they visited the Queen lying in state that they were there ‘working’ and so it made it very difficult after the event to justify what was perceived as a ‘queue jump’,” said Simon Wadsworth, managing partner of the reputation management firm Igniyte.

“Given that it was well known that some people had queued for lots of hours, and even overnight, it was somewhat insensitive but probably a genuine oversight.”

What the public may not have known is that hundreds of journalists took up the chance to spend half an hour observing the public filing past the monarch’s coffin. They arrived in small groups before being led to a platform in Westminster Hall where they could reflect on proceedings in order to inform their reporting. Mobile phones were not allowed but they were allowed to take pen and paper into the hall.

Schofield and Willoughby were accompanied on their visit by a team that included Martin Frizell, the editor of This Morning, although an ITV spokesperson said he did not enter Westminster Hall.

Three issues appear to have combined towards creating this mini-scandal around a queue. First, it appears that Schofield and Willoughby were led to a different area of the hall from other journalists – which had the effect of allowing them to be caught on camera.

Second, footage spread across Instagram and TikTok before the intended broadcast on This Morning – priming viewers to believe that they had jumped the public queue. Third, This Morning’s audience seem to be particularly ill-disposed towards the pair and with regard to any potential breaches of royal etiquette – especially when fellow ITV presenter Susanna Reid chose to queue with the public.

So what can crisis and reputation management gurus like Wadsworth, whose firm’s list of clients include a Knight of the Realm, a film producer and a former Bond girl, advise? “Their statement seemed to lack empathy,” Wadsworth said. “I would have recommended a quick response along the lines of, ‘Whilst they were following guidelines they appreciated how it could be perceived and apologise for the impact it had’ – show a bit of contrition to make the public warm to their situation.”

For John Harrington, the editor of PR Week, who’s seen his fair share of crises, this one is particularly absurd. “Given the number of crises in the world at the moment, it’s logically ridiculous that allegations of queue jumping by two broadcasters have caused so many bad headlines, and apparently so much anger,” he said.

Harrington said the reason for the backlash was the same as for Boris Johnson’s lockdown parties: the sense of unfairness, of “one rule for them, another rule for the rest of us”. “Everyone has waited in a queue, just as everyone had to isolate during lockdown,” he said, adding that it was unfortunate the scandal came so soon after the “wheel of fortune” contest that offered to pay people’s energy bills.

Both Harrington and Wadsworth agreed that in the long term, the presenters could help rebuild their reputations by talking about good cause work they’ve done. “Usually we would help the client create positive new stories to counter the negative, perhaps focusing on the work they do for charity or the community to earn some good will back from those who feel they have let them down.”