President Joe Biden (right), accompanied by First Lady Jill Biden (left), signs a book of condolence at Lancaster House in London, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Sept. 18. Photo by Jonathan Hordle
By Rita Rico
When Queen Elizabeth II passed away after a 70-year reign, Sept. 8, the United Kingdom fell into a period of mourning and grief. President Joe Biden said it best: “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was more than a monarch. She defined an era.”
In order to honor her life and legacy, the U.K. government had been planning the almost two-week sequence of events for the state funeral for years—dubbed Operation London Bridge—including by coordinating with Embassy London on a potential presidential visit. In the lead-up to the funeral, Sept. 19, which became one of the largest gatherings of world leaders ever, the public diplomacy section in London (PD London) moved quickly to express America’s condolences to the British people. PD London also prepared Ambassador Jane D. Hartley overnight for live TV and radio interviews with global media outlets immediately following the queen’s death and turned to planning for the president and First Lady Jill Biden’s arrival in the UK for the funeral.
Hartley, speaking live on camera to international media, shared her personal story of having presented her diplomatic credentials to the queen on the hottest day on record in the U.K., and the queen’s delight at hearing the ambassador had brought her dog, Bear, with her on assignment.
Long-term preparation and planning with embassy counterparts meant PD London had key messages ready to be deployed at short notice. Years in advance, PD London worked with the Department’s Bunche Library and the White House Historical Association to compile research on the relationship between the queen and the United States. Consequently, PD London was able to quickly highlight occasions like when the queen, in a break from tradition, instructed her military band to play the Star-Spangled Banner during the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace in the days after 9/11. This display of solidarity gave comfort to grieving Americans and those who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks. Additionally, the section could point to instances when the queen was supportive of American democracy.
For instance, in 1976, during a visit to Philadelphia to join the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the queen said, “It seems to me that Independence Day should be celebrated as much in Britain as in America. Not in rejoicing at the separation of the American colonies from the British Crown but in sincere gratitude to the Founding Fathers of this great republic for having taught Britain a very valuable lesson. We lost the American colonies because we lacked that statesmanship ‘to know the right time, and the manner of yielding what is impossible to keep’… Together, as friends and allies, we can face the uncertainties of the future, and this is something for which we in Britain can also celebrate the Fourth of July.”
Ambassador Hartley’s heartfelt condolences, reflecting on decades of bilateral closeness, ensured the British populace understood that the American people were standing with them during this sad transition period.
The presidential visit capped a historic period of solidarity on behalf of the United States in honor of the United Kingdom, initiated by the president’s Sept. 8 announcement that U.S. flags would fly at half-staff at the White House and all public and military buildings. PD London prepared and released a social media video with images of U.S. flags at half-staff at embassies and consulates around the world in honor of the queen. When the president and first lady were on the ground, PD London supported the White House press corps and official photographer in capturing the moment President Biden signed the condolence book for the U.K. Further, PD London worked with Royal Palace staff, U.K. government counterparts, as well as journalist contacts, to coordinate respectful coverage of the president’s role in funeral events.
In all, PD London ensured that the United States conveyed the message that people all across America stood with the people of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth in their grief.
“The passing of the Queen was a moment for reflection not only in the United Kingdom but around the world. The work of our Embassy to express solidarity and sympathy with the British people, and to coordinate a presidential visit on the tightest of timelines, meant so much to our special relationship and to admirers of Queen Elizabeth’s life and legacy everywhere,” said Ambassador Hartley, reflecting on Embassy London’s response to the event.
Rita Rico is a strategic communications advisor in the public diplomacy section at Embassy London.