The Royal Family – masters of public relations


This summer will mark the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II – arguably the most famous woman on earth. Along with red post boxes, Harry Potter and the Full English, the Royal Family is an iconic symbol of Britishness known throughout the world. 

Since Queen Elizabeth II’s birth, and for the 60 years since she was crowned, her image has been a visible part of the known world. She is frequently shown in newspapers, magazines and on television broadcasts globally. Her face has graced some 300 billion stamps, as well as millions of coins and banknotes throughout the Commonwealth. Her face is likely the most reproduced image of any human being in history.

According to the Daily Telegraph poll conducted a week after the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, nine in ten British adults are satisfied with the way in which the Queen is doing her job. It is the highest level of satisfaction recorded since Ipsos Mori first asked the question in 1992.

It wasn’t always so.

Just over two decades back, the Queen famously declared 1992 her ‘annus horribilis’, or ‘one’s bum year’ as The Sun put it. Andrew Morton’s biography on Diana had lifted the lid on the unhappy marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, Princess Anne was divorced, intimate photographs of the Duchess of York and a Texan businessman were published in the Daily Mirror, and a fire ripped through Windsor Castle causing millions of pounds’ worth of damage – which someone needed to pay for.

The royal family’s popularity was at an all-time low. It was around this time that ‘the firm’ (as the Queen refers to the Royal Family) recognised its need of a public relations programme.

The Queen instigated the ‘Way Ahead’ group, a body of advisers and senior royals who met secretly with the aim of improving the monarchy’s image, a turnaround The New Statesman declared “perhaps the most successful brand resurrection in public relations history”.

At the heart of the turnaround was a strategy of transparency, relevance and value.

The Buckingham Palace press team built largely of friends of ‘the firm’ and those with military links was replaced with media professionals, including former Sunday Times, BBC and Financial Times journalists. The Queen agreed to pay income tax, as well as fund the Windsor Castle refurbishment by opening up Buckingham Palace to the public. Dramatic cost-cutting was put in place (today, the institution costs £30million a year; back then the figure was closer to £80m).

Over the years since, the royals have become expert at using media to ensure positive headlines. From the broadcast The Queen gave to the nation on the eve of Diana’s funeral to calm the anger that was building up against her, to recent interviews Princes William and Harry gave to US broadcasters on their ‘granny’, PR exercises are tactics the royals are getting better and better at.

Prince Charles presenting the weather, the Duchess of Cambridge in floor length Alexander McQueen at the BAFTAS, Prince Harry running with Usain Blot, and pop concerts at the Palace to mark Golden and Diamond Jubilees have all helped deliver photo opportunities and positive headlines to keep the monarchy in the public’s affections. There are many still in shock at seeing our head of state in a James Bond cameo.   

The transformation began in the print age but is now very much digital – the 86 year old monarch has both a Facebook page and a Twitter feed.

The Spectator said in an article in May last year: “The royal family now has a press outfit that’s at least as effective as New Labour’s under Tony Blair: they can defuse a bad story as quickly as they can generate a positive one.” Even Prince Harry has seen his reputation changed from drunk clubber dressed as a Nazi to war hero. His Jubilee tour of the Caribbean was deemed a triumph.

Perhaps the biggest recent success for ‘the firm’ was the royal wedding. Media organisations from across the globe descended on London to cover the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, adding up to some 8,500 journalists from more than 36 studios. 14 American television channels simultaneously broadcast the wedding. The Empire State Building in New York was illuminated in the colours of the Union Jack. Overall, the wedding is estimated to have reached some 2 billion people.  The comms mastermind behind it all, Paddy Harverson, was named PR Professional of the Year at the PRWeek Awards 2011 for managing ‘the global PR event of the year’ (he’s due to leave Clarence House sometime this Spring to form his own consultancy leaving open one of the most high profile positions in the communications industry).

The royals’ communications programme is undoubtedly central to their survival.

Despite the transformation for the royals, one thing has remained constant. Whilst younger royals have been happy to speak to interviewers ranging from Katie Couric, Tom Bradby, and Fern Cotton, The Queen has largely kept mum (or should that be kept ma’am?). 

It’s an approach that’s served her well by maintaining magic and mystique in the monarchy, but to me it’s an interesting paradox that the most famous woman in the world has never given an interview. Would Jubilee’ve it?