Part one of the BBC’s "Reinventing the Royals" aired in the United Kingdom a little over a week ago, and it illustrated how it’s the British monarchy’s PR team that are the true
defenders of the realm.
Aptly subtitled "Crisis," the program revealed how Britain’s most famous family has dealt with everything from unpopular second
marriages to pot-smoking Princes. Overcoming a PR crisis (and in some cases prospering from it) often relies on one’s ability to create new narratives,
and rarely is this more evident than in the case of royal crisis communications, three of the best examples of which we examine here:
Queen Elizabeth II speaking as a grandmother
Let’s be very clear: nobody won from the tragic and untimely death of the "people’s princess," Diana.
What’s more, many hold the press
directly responsible for Diana’s death, as it came when her driver was trying to evade a pack of pursuing paparazzi. It's a
poignant reminder not to reduce Princess Diana’s legacy to a media narrative. As Steve Hewlett, writer and presenter of "Reinventing the Royals," says: “For the Royal Family...private tragedy [turned] into a public relations crisis of historic proportions.”
aftermath of Diana’s death, Queen Elizabeth was not just out of reach (she was away in Balmoral, Scotland) but out of touch with the popular mood. The Royal
Family epitomized the British "stiff upper lip" philosophy, and in times of crisis you might think such steely resolve would be a good thing, but not in
this crisis. The British public was in mourning and wanted to know their Queen cared. She got the message and returned to make an unscheduled address to
the nation, with the key line: “What I say to you now as your Queen and as a Grandmother, I say from my heart."
The inclusion was the brainchild of Alastair
Campbell, the then Press Secretary to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He believes it was a game-changer. He describes how after the speech, when
he was walking back from the palace to the prime minister's residence, “it was a different mood.” The Queen had traded the royal for the human touch,
and the British public was appeased.
Prince Charles, single parent and caring father
Prince Charles had reached crisis point when the press had labeled him a bad father and an unloving husband. The public was incensed by his affair
with Camilla Parker Bowles. In short, and as Robert Jobson, Royal Editor of the London Evening Standard, put it: “Prince Charles’s public relations were at
The man, who by all accounts had very little concept of media relations, needed help.
Unlike the Queen’s speech, the reputational damage incurred by Prince Charles required a longer-term strategy. It began with a royal tour of South Africa.
There, accompanied by his son Prince Harry, Prince Charles would show the world his lighter side. He was "chatty" with journalists on the flight over
(something he wasn’t usually) and could be seen sharing a joke with his son when the pair were welcomed by a traditional dance courtesy of (topless) South
The press lapped it up with the Daily Mirror headline,
“Your Royal Ha-Ha-Ness; Wisecracking Charles shows off his new sense of humour.” The article went on to explain how "since Princess Diana's death, senior royal aides have been privately trying to restore his image and shake off a
public 'misconception' that he is unemotional and distant.”
The real test, however, hinged on whether the British public would ever accept Camilla Parker
Bowels as Prince Charles’s new love, let alone future wife. The nation’s affection for Princess Diana far exceeded anything felt for Charles, and
one of the enduring memories of the Princess was an interview she gave to the BBC in which she said, “It was a husband who loved someone else, yes”.
Camilla was the someone else.
"Operation PB," as it was apparently called, meant making Parker Bowles part of the Royal set-up in such a way that
wouldn’t lead to national outrage. First came a leaked story about how Prince William had met Camilla (the exact source of which is still unknown). It was a way
of testing the public reaction. Then came the showpiece: a private party to celebrate the 50th Birthday of Camilla’s sister at the Ritz hotel in
London. Prince Charles and Camilla arrived separately, but, crucially, left together in front of the assembled media scrum. As Arthur Edwards, Royal
photographer of The Sun, said: “It was choreographed in its design to introduce Camilla to the world.”
The delicately staged exit worked, and the public
mood towards the pair softened. The PR guru behind this, Mark Bolland, later arranged for the couple to be seen out in public with Prince William and for
his continued efforts to make the relationship more palatable. Bolland was named PR Week's 2001 PR professional of the year. He was given the award
because “his [had] been a difficult campaign to run especially at a time of decreasing sympathy for the Royal family. To get Charles and Camilla back to
some form of respectability show[ed] a commendable long-term strategy.”
Prince Charles, protector
Prince Harry seems to have a hearty disregard for how things will play in the media, whether he's photographed at a party wearing a swastika armband two weeks before Memorial Day, filmed using racist language against his own army comrades, or snapped playing strip billiards in Vegas. To say the ‘Playboy
Prince’ lacks subtlety is an understatement.
From a young age, Prince Harry showed a remarkable gift for courting negative publicity. He was 17 when
he admitted to smoking cannabis, and though the story could have been disastrous, from the depths of despair emerged Prince Charles, who, under the advice
of his PR people, took his teenage son to a drug rehab clinic. The one-off visit which introduced Prince Harry to recovering heroin addicts achieved two
things: It showed the young Prince the very real dangers of serious drug abuse, and simultaneously showed Prince Charles to be a protective, concerned father.
[RELATED: It's time to revisit your crisis communications plan, if you have one.]
The Royals often get it wrong. To see just how wrong readers might be interested in consulting Time magazine’s "Top 10 Royal Family Gaffes." It makes the job
of their PR team that much harder, but in light of the evidence, you have to say they are doing a sterling job.
In the opening sequence of "Reinventing the Royals," Sandy Henney, Press Secretary to the Prince of Wales from 1993 to 2000, said, “Nothing can prepare you for what it’s like
to work for the Royal Family. They are the policy, they are the brand, they are flesh and blood.”
The British Royal Family is certainly a unique client
with a PR team who, by necessity, are uniquely skilled in effective crisis communications.