Queen of the spinners
How Elizabeth and the Windsors became a top brand for the 21st century.
The Diamond Jubilee will be a time of global celebrations for the Queen’s 60th year on the throne. But, for the monarch herself, it will also mark a more personal triumph – conducting perhaps the most successful brand resurrection in public relations history.
The reputational overhaul has been ordered from the very top – by “the Boss”, as her team refers to her. No attempt to reposition a company, a product or an individual will succeed without “buy-in” from the central figure in the drama. And, in the Queen’s case, she is the main driver of change.
It was in 1992 that she declared she had endured her annus horribilis – or, as the Sun put it on its front page, “One’s bum year”. Prince Charles and Diana separated, she having lifted the lid on the whole sorry saga to the biographer Andrew Morton. Princess Anne divorced and the Duchess of York was pictured in magazines having her toes sucked by an American. To cap it all, in November, an inferno at Windsor Castle caused tens of millions of pounds in damage – and the public, enduring the early 1990s recession, refused to foot the bill. Nor would people accept the need to build a new royal yacht to replace Britannia.Courtiers pinpoint that year, when the royal family was at its lowest ebb, as the turning point. It is at these times that brands have to follow the first r
ule of reputation management: face up to the truth or die. In a way, it was the public’s dismay at hearing the details of the Waleses’ marital break-up, coupled with the refusal to meet the cost of Windsor Castle’s refurbishment, that forced the pace of change. The Queen instigated the “Way Ahead” group, a secret body of advisers and members of the family that met twice a year. It was in this forum that she and Prince Philip agreed that they should start paying income tax. The “minor” royals were taken off the civil list and forced to find salaried work or live off their private fortunes. (That the Way Ahead group no longer meets or even exists is testament to the fact that its work is done.)
The main aim of “root-and-branch” reform was to professionalise the royal household. In those pre-New Labour days, you had to be a friend of the Firm or a senior military officer to work for the monarchy. That cosy establishment was a barrier to transparency, and also prevented the Queen from picking up a sense of the public mood. Her press team – such as it was – lived at taxpayers’ expense in grace-and-favour royal apartments. The institution cost the nation £80m a year back then. Now it is a mere £30m. Too much for any republican, of course – but a big saving on the balance sheet for any chief financial officer. As one figure in the royal household says: “It was flabby and inefficient, run by the establishment and its friends for the establishment and its friends. It’s transformed because it’s now run by professionals.”
The next critical moment in the rebranding of Britain’s royalty occurred in 1997, when crisis once again engulfed the royal family immediately after the death of the Princess of Wales. There was public dismay that the Queen and her family had decided to hide away in the Scottish Highlands rather than lead the nation in mourning from Buckingham Palace.
History, and an Oscar-winning performance by Helen Mirren in Stephen Frears’s The Queen, relates how Tony Blair and his team helped to persuade Her Majesty it was time to embrace the public’s desire for her to come to London and fly the Union Flag at half-mast.
And maybe that was the most crucial turning point. PR campaigns are all very well when normal trading conditions exist; but it’s in the heat of battle, or crisis, that reputations are strengthened or destroyed.
All those to whom I talked in researching this article confirmed what those in the household assured me: that the Queen played a central role in this. Perhaps that is not so strange, because the Queen has a corporate memory like no other. She has been the Boss for 60 years. She knows what works and what doesn’t. She has seen the failures – It’s a Royal Knockout is a shining example – and she’s not likely to repeat them. As a royal household figure says: “We’ll suggest a visit or an event and she’ll suddenly turn around and say, ‘It didn’t work in 1972 and it isn’t going to work now.’”
So who is in the Queen’s new, “professional” team? Her press operations are handled by Ailsa Anderson, a polished former Ministry of Defence communications professional. She is the wife of an ex-Royal Navy officer, and her cut-glass accent belies a steely interior – one that made her an indispensable adviser to New Labour’s hard man John Reid when he was armed forces minister. Anderson’s deputy is Ed Perkins, a sharp former TV news journalist.
They seldom enjoy an audience with their employer. Instead, they liaise with Sir Christopher Geidt, the Queen’s 51-year-old private secretary. He is one half of an unlikely duo to whom Her Majesty grants extraordinary access and in whom she places her trust. The other is Angela Kelly, formerly the Queen’s dresser and now an assistant who, Buckingham Palace sources assure me, “tells her what’s really happening in the world, warts and all”.
Sir Christopher is a former army sergeant who rose rapidly in the foreign service and latterly served as a UN adviser in the Balkans. (No wonder he earns a £146,000 salary, higher than that of the Prime Minister.) His deputy, Edward Young, is another communications professional, having advised Barclays Bank and William Hague.
The modern royal household would not succeed without integrating the activities of Princes Charles, William and Harry, which are handled by the Clarence House team, and so a joint weekly meeting is convened on a Thursday or Friday to share diaries and strategy to “deconflict” what could become competing “brands”. There, the Queen’s team will swap notes with Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton and Miguel Head, who look after the young princes and Kate Middleton, as well as Paddy Harverson, a former Financial Times journalist who worked at Manchester United before becoming press secretary to Prince Charles.
Harverson’s number two is the extremely able Mark Leishman, a former Sunday Times and BBC journalist who has quickly found favour with the palace team since his appointment in 2009. All are signed up to a strategic policy of refusing to favour any news organisation.
Playing all inquiries with a straight bat is the order of the day. Journalists point out that this leaves them little “purchase” with their news organisations. But, crucially, it means the only sources of stories are official ones – or the royals themselves when they are on public display.
The Leveson inquiry and all that went before it have ensured that, nowadays, nothing is published that the royal family doesn’t wish to see in broadcast. This is the perfect scenario for any communications adviser. The PRs get to write their own “brand narrative”. As no one in or around the royal family speaks privately to journalists, only positive things are written about the household. Lowther-Pinkerton, an ex-SAS officer, and the former Foreign Office and MoD press officer Head have one of the most enviable jobs in public relations: looking after the popular Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is a dream.
In spite of Prince Harry’s penchant for sometimes shocking episodes in his younger days – such as dressing in a Nazi uniform – his reputation has been transformed. His trip to Jamaica in March was part of a Diamond Jubilee tour of Commonwealth countries and is widely seen to have been a public relations smash.
One journalist who has spent time with the younger prince says: “He has the gift of his mother – he is a natural. He writes his own script from natural instinct. No one told him that cheating in a race against the world’s fast-est man, Usain Bolt, would be a golden television moment. He just did it. It was hilarious. Anyone else trying it would have looked cringe-making.”
Observers say that Miguel Head deserves applause for devising a strategy of moving the two young princes away from their father in order to create their own “narratives”. Yet one veteran royal journalist points out that both William and Harry have begun singling out their father for praise. An operation has begun, it seems, to bolster Prince Charles among the British public in preparation for his accession to the throne.
To appraise the royal reputation makeover, it is necessary to study how the household has integrated its communications plan. The clear strategy has been to underline the enduring appeal of the Queen and the monarchy as a model of stability in a turbulent world. Shining a spotlight on the relationship she has with her grandsons has also been a masterstroke.
Indeed, both princes have given interviews to American TV – broadcast in the past few days – in which they talked about her being “Granny” first and foremost. Kate, too, has begun carrying out public duties accompanying the Queen, to allow her to benefit from the monarch’s “halo effect”. Smart thinking: both women benefit from each other’s strengths.
The royal makeover began in an analogue age but is now firmly digital. I didn’t believe at first that the Queen was engaged in social media or that she genuinely sends text messages to her grandsons. However, having spoken to those who know, I am convinced she really is a silver surfer. It was her press team that suggested a Facebook account should be set up 18 months ago; she signed it off after extensive research. One watcher said: “She was 84 when she made that decision. How many others at that age would even know what Facebook is?”
Finally, the PR industry knows well that no tactic will work unless it is authentic. It is extraordinary that during her 60 years on the throne the Queen has never given an interview. This, more than any other PR trick, is perhaps the single most important one: she has kept the mystique and the magic.
George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at the PR firm Portland Communications