A historic look at publicity through the lens of the royal family as a guide to modern public relations principles.
Public Relations is crucial in this ever-changing, 24/7 always-on world but the truth is, it has always been crucial. Many individuals and organizations have searched for clarity around their ability to manage their image, solidify their brand, influence the public, and drive the enterprise by relying on guidance from savvy politicians, influencers, and decision makers.
The need for sophisticated communications strategies seems like a modern challenge, but as far back as we have been able to understand history, power, and politics, we can see that consistently heeding communications and publicity advice is what has made great leaders, organizations and enterprises. The need to harness the power to influence is as old as power itself.
In celebration of season four of my favorite historic drama, The Crown, I watched the first three seasons as a refresher and spent the entire time musing to myself about all the great PR lessons. Then I grabbed my laptop and here we are: my historic look at publicity through the lens of the royal family as a guide to modern public relations principles.
I became a “royal watcher” at the age of 10, snuggled next to my mother as we watched Diana Spencer become Princess Diana on the day that she married Prince Charles. You have heard all the clichés—the “wedding of the century,” a real “fairytale wedding”—and that globally celebrated event was watched by a staggering audience of 750 million people. The biggest audience for a Super Bowl is only 114 million and only 650 million people watch the Apollo Moon landing. About a billion people watched the Rumble in the Jungle and about 1.9 billion watched the first Live Aid. Years later, the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 was watched by an estimated 2 billion people globally, making it the all-time most-watched royal event on live television in the world. So, I am not alone in my royal watching and the wedding itself could be the basis of a PR book (it is simply a brilliant publicity gem amongst a collection of gems worthy of a royal.)
While I spend most of my time contemplating modern public relations issues, it is beneficial as a professional to take a step away from the daily media meltdowns and to look at where we are and what we are doing with a little perspective. This light history provides not only the most important milestones in royal publicity, but allows me to share communications fundamentals that are timeless. It was fun to reacquaint myself with the antics of these aristocrats and I hope you enjoy my thoughts on how modern communicators can learn a few lessons from the trials and tribulations of a few royals.
Royal PR Lesson: Understand History
Without a thorough understanding of relevant history, it becomes extremely difficult to advise an organization on where it should be going and how to get there.
The War Years
The British Royal Family, currently as the House of Windsor, has been in power for over 1200 years. I can hardly think of another institution, organization, or brand that has survived even a quarter of that time. Many dynasties have fallen, most have in fact—yet the most famous royal family in history, Britain’s most powerful dynasty, continues to survive. Possibly at any cost. We know the trials and tribulations of Princess Diana and the current media flurry around Harry and Megan, but the royal publicity machine was launched long-before this current generation faced TMZ and hordes of paparazzi. While history is full of brazen royal publicity stunts, we will start with the one that singularly defined the current monarchy’s publicity savvy: The Name Change.
During the first World War, as German bombers attacked England for the first time, the royal family became keenly, painfully aware of their PR problem—their brand was in terrible trouble. The family name, up until that point, was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (their ancestors’ German name.) The name of the Nazi Bombers attacking the city were called the Gotha Bombers. You can see how that might look bad. King George V was not a war leader and he is generally characterized as cautious and conservative and as a dull man who collected stamps. He was also steeped in privilege. His parents Queen Victoria and King Albert were German, his father was German, and his mother was Danish. The Saxe-Coburg-Gathas were part of the sprawling entitled European Royal dynasty, with cousins marrying each other all over Europe. King George V’s first cousins were the Russian Tsar Nicholas II and the German Kaiser, Wilhelm. His wife, Queen Mary, was also German. All of that was fine and dandy, until the war began when public sentiment would not go his way and there was a wave of anti-German sentiment across Europe at the time.
As you might recall from world history class, England goes to war, it all goes very badly, and the public turns against the status quo. In Russia, the Tsar, King George V’s cousin and close childhood friend, was overthrown. King George V was personally gutted by all historical accounts, however, professionally, as the leader of The Crown, he waivered on giving his cousin asylum in England, given the current tone. As we would learn years later, advisers to the king, being quite PR savvy for the day, were keeping tabs on the numerous displays of public outcry in a file called “Unrest in the Country.”
These advisers to various Lords and the Prime Minister saw what the royal family did not—sentiment and support for the monarchy was waning. To avoid resentment and public opposition, the British Royal Family took the broad and eyebrow raising step to actually advise the government (royals generally are not supposed to weigh in on political issues) on how to support (or not) the Russian Tsar. As we know now, shortly thereafter the entire House of Romanov family was brutally murdered. The British royal family made the cold-hearted decision to maintain their popularity over saving their family. It has been said many times that survival is the key focus of the British monarchy.
Royal PR Lesson: Understand YOUR Public
Your audience, your customers, your employees, your constituents—those are the people who create your brand. You can build a brand but if it is not a shared, lived experience among your key stakeholders, it means nothing.
As the European royal dynasties slowly fell apart during the war, George V worked with his Lords to craft what can only be described as a branding strategy. Memos from 1917 detailing these conversations are held in museums now and lay out a very specific plan to reinvigorate the monarchy at all levels—among the people and parliament—to insure that The Crown continues not only as a figurehead, but as leader of society, with a special mention that they must reach out to all classes to win back the hearts of the people. This was likely the first royal Influencer Campaign. The monarchy learned that they needed the love and support of “the bottom” to stay on top. So, they did what no other modern monarchs had done—they socialized with their fans. They went to coalmines, to poor people’s homes, and on “walk-abouts” at everyday events. They, of course, had their pictures taken and were all over the news for each of these public events. sounds quite modern, yes?
Luckily, just as they were launching their rebrand, the young Prince of Wales became a megastar: they had their perfect Brand Ambassador. David, as he was affectionately known (I use common names here as the V, VI, VII etc. get confusing) was the hot young bachelor of the day. His personality was that of a celebrity, schmoozing with the crowds and smiling charmingly at the ladies.
All was going well with the rebrand, but the German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha name continued to be an issue in the news and among the people. Across England, German immigrants were being attacked, abused, and tormented as the war dragged on and it was not lost on most that their sovereign, their king, was also German. Modern releases of historic documents puts much of the pushing and prodding to improve the family’s public standing at the hands of Lord Stamforham, the organizer of the above-mentioned branding strategy. Many names were vetted in the process of attempting to distance themselves from Germany, including Stuart, Tudor, and Plantagenet—but all conjured images of evil royals and other unattractive historical issues.
While fretting about England being bombed by Gotha Bombers, inspiration struck with “The House of Windsor.” This came from Windsor Castle, of course, one of the many homes of the royals, and a well-known and well-loved landmark, and all the king’s advisors and supporters approved of this very British sounding name. This was the first and most important step in rebranding the royal dynasty.
A year later, the war had ended, and nine European monarchies had fallen, but the now very adored King and Queen of England were cheered and celebrated as they waved from Windsor Castle, as heads of The House of Windsor. Historians may feel that other attributes—the king’s humility or political acumen—saved his family, but for me, it was a superbly executed public relations campaigned that saved the monarchy.
What is in a name? Well to quote another famous guy from England:
’Tis but thy name that is mine enemy:
What’s Montague? It is not hand nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Royal PR Lesson: Your Name Matters
Words matter, and so do names. Over time, history or a single individual can create an entirely new meaning of a word or name. Understand that these choices have to be reviewed frequently and often need to be changed entirely.
The Second Season
The war was “won” but the King George V and his royal family continued with their publicity program with a robust schedule of public appearances. The Prince of Wales (David to the family) continued as the family’s brand ambassador and was a global sensation. The second in line, Prince Albert (who would later become King after another horrible Royal PR fail) was not interested in any publicity, but reluctantly went along with the program. [We will talk about this later, because there is a great lesson to learn here about affinity and what people are naturally capable of.]
For now, we go back to the roaring twenties, where the Prince of Wales (David) was maximizing his bad boy behavior by dating married women, trashing the throne, and generally continuing to speak a little to liberally about politics for a royal. He was not even king yet, but he already hated his job, which apparently, he told anyone who would listen. He wanted to be a regular playboy and to party, listen to jazz, and chase women. The two princes went on double-dates with married women and behaved so poorly that their father, King George V, eventually bribed Prince Albert, Bertie to the family, to stop dating the woman in his life because she was older and married.
From a marketing standpoint, what we see at this point in the organization’s evolution is a brand with a strong-willed, unforgiving leader (King George V) and wildly popular executives (the princes) who have quite different ideas and understandings on how to move the brand forward.
Before his death the King and Queen continued to be wildly popular and enjoyed the massive public support that they worked so hard to garner. King George V spoke of love between he and his people during his last public addresses. When he died in 1936, George V had successfully completed the job of cementing the royal brand deep within the hearts and minds of the people. However, all of that was about to be swept away with the wild love affair between the Prince of Wales and a very off-brand, lively American.
We have seen this play out with other family businesses and the stakes are always higher it seems. But they were royalty, so what could possibly go wrong with the family enterprise? Only the biggest society scandal of all times—The Prince of Wales (David) abdicated the throne to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, serving as King Edward VIII for less than a year. King Edward’s abdication of the throne nearly killed the monarchy. While he was planning to be a king who married a divorcee, the Queen, the King, and most of the political and royal advisors, were in no way prepared to even consider such a shocking, sinful, modern romance.
Royal PR Lesson: Own Your Legacy
Your legacy (personal or professional) is not something that springs into being after you are gone. Build your professional or organizational legacy while you are in a position to do so, lest the next generation comes along to cock it all up.
An American Woman
You may have heard the story of the romance that nearly brought down The Crown. In 1934, a divorcee from America became the mistress to David, the Prince of Wales, much to the shock and horror of English aristocracy. Even though the House of Windsor had worked so hard to connect with the working class, there were still very strict social and religious expectations of the royals and the high society crowd. The idea that a prominent person would flout society, the government, and the church—it was too much!
[So to catch up: King George V has died and and his son has ascended to the throne as a bachelor, while secretly carrying-on an affair with an American married woman.]
Internally, when the scandalous affair became common knowledge, the decision-makers and royal advisors, were in today’s parlance, losing their sh*t. To make matters worse, after barely surviving the first World War (remember the one with the German bombers that lead to the total rebrand?) King Edward (David) decided that Hitler was a cool dude and was doing some really cool things in Nazi Germany. Just when the family had finally and fully cut their German ties King Edward and his American mistress were cozying up to the Third Reich. History has softened its view of King Edward’s mingling with Hitler, basically concluding that it was not much more than some chats, parades, and parties. However, at the time, nothing—simply nothing—could have ruined the family’s image more thoroughly than Nazis.
Royal PR Lesson: Nazis Are Bad
Make sure you know your business partners, vendors or spokespeople very well before you align yourself to their cause. Understand their motives, desires, and business landscape before you sign on the dotted line.
Nothing could have ruined the family’s image more thoroughly than Nazis, except perhaps sinful sex with a divorced woman. To put this in perspective we have to remember that The Monarchy is devoutly Christian. [Technically, they practice Anglicanism, a form of Christianity, under the Church of England.] But they are super conservative to say the least. Even today, the Queen is acknowledged as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The don’t select their religion, they are ordained to it by God. All of this is to say that they are very proper, very religious, and profoundly serious about who marries whom.
When news of the love affair hit the media, it was like a punch in the gut to mainstream England. Now you must remember it was 1936. Even the roaring twenties did not prepare the masses for things like premarital sex, divorcees, mistresses, and inter-faith marriages. Plus, the idea that the man who had been groomed to be king from birth would pick an American woman over every eligible female in his entire country, was too much. While some youngsters wanted the king to marry for love, the general consensus was it was a horrible scandal.
For political, religious, and social reasons, it was wholly unacceptable by the establishment for David, now King Edward VIII to marry Mrs. Wallis Simpson. The King had to lead the Church and the Church did not allow marriages to divorced parties if the former spouse was still alive. The newly divorced, and twice divorced, woman would not be allowed to marry her prince charming. Simpson was pressured to break up with the king, and made a statement (kindly crafted on her behalf by a royal advisor) that she would break it off with him, allowing him to continue his kingly duties without interference.
But as often happens, love won and David simply would not let her go. The King abdicated on December 10, 1936 after barely one year on the throne, leaving younger brother Albert, known to the family as Bertie, to lead the Empire. Prince Albert became King George VI on December 11, 1936.
Once free, David slinked away to France to marry Mrs. Simpson and they never regained their benefits of royalty. Sadly, his bold plan backfired in the biggest possible way, he was forced to make good on this threat of choosing love over country, and the family basically disowned him. To make matters worse, he made the either brilliant or wildly stupid decision to strike up his old friendships in Nazi Germany while in exile. Again, history is kind to David—lots of people did not yet know what was really going on with Hitler yet at that time—but as a world-famous playboy and former diplomat with a direct line to the King of England, it took some real nerve to play the Hitler card.
[I do not mean to make light of Nazis. We know now what was really happening. In my opinion, Hitler, Nazis, Fascists, and White Supremacists can all rot in hell for eternity and I will not feel one bit sorry for them. But at the time of the failed King’s friendship with Hitler, many people believed there were very fine people on both sides.]
David had begun warming up to the competition, if you will, and newly released documents show that British intelligence had become aware of the former King’s desire to form a new government and oppose his brother, King George VI—the one who never wanted to be king and only had to step up because his brother wouldn’t do it. The key phrases in the released documents are propaganda and public opinion. Of course, the Monarchy has over the years spun this all as gossip and hearsay, but nevertheless, we know that the former king was promptly resettled into the Bahamas with a royal allowance shortly after the time the letter indicating a potential coup was discovered. David had gotten their attention, but just in case you are not aware, being downgraded to Governor of the Bahamas after being King of England is a major burn!
They survived two world wars but it was the love of one great American woman that nearly took down the British monarchy. One key lesson was cemented during this era in the royal organization—the goal is survival, above all else. They expectation was that everyone would be dutiful and live in service of The Crown.
Royal PR Lesson: The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend
In life, as in business, competition is fierce. Spend most of your time understanding your audiences and supporters, but spend a bit of time understanding your competition.
The Happy Years of a Reluctant Leader
As Bertie reluctantly becomes king in 1936 (a great film to watch on this era is The Kings Speech), the royal brand is in disarray. The new king (not the heir to the throne and nothing close to what the public sees as kingly, both very important in winning public support) is thrust into the top spot, much to the concern of all that knew him. However after getting settled of the horrors of war, mystery, and intrigue actually served King George VI quite well. Buckingham Palace was bombed in the second World War and the royal family refused to leave—insisting that they needed to be with their people during these challenging times. They supported the resistance, walked among the bombed-out neighborhoods, toured hospitals, gave hopeful speeches, fed the poor, kissed babies, and generally did all of the things that beloved leaders are expected to do during hard times. [Much like we are seeing and discussing in 2020.]
All told, the second generation of The House of Windsor (King George VI aka Bertie, Queen Mary, and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret) were doing quite well, despite the fact that England was in economic turmoil. (We bailed them out!) The princesses were growing up to be fine, proper young ladies and the King had settled into royal life. But as often happens, external geo-political events push organizations to make changes that do not quite suit them. The family reluctantly set out on a historic world tour to shore up relationships with the Empire—mainly South Africa—just as England was buried in historically harsh snow and ice—leveling the economy, halting imports and exports, and forcing fuel shortages upon many.
We have to remember that the King is not just the King of England, but he is an Emperor and the head of the British Empire—an empire that include about 25% of the world at that time, measured both in land and in humans. While the House of Windsor has shored up the brand in England, the world view had begun to change. Just as soon as he had maneuvered to settled his country, the rest of the world began to change. Russia became a world power, while wars and revolutions were changing the world map on a monthly basis. The King was nervous, and while he hated the publicity and the public events, he understood what his job required. It is hard to imagine a vast global organization running smoothly with a CEO who constantly bemoaned his role and responsibilities. Bertie was looked down upon by politicians and statesmen for being dull and dim, but he had excelled during the war years. Much to the efforts of Queen Elizabeth who propped her husband up during the war and was vital in the role as Queen Mother. The crisis had made them better. Now they had to do the hard work of politicking in peacetime.
Royal PR Lesson: Always Have a Contingency Plan
You may think that your strategy, program, campaign or plan is written in stone. You might truly believe that you have covered every base and eliminated every possible issue. However, history has shown us that even mandates from The Church and The Queen can be ignored. Have a backup plan. Know the risks. Think of the unthinkable.
This time can also be called the happy years because the public started to see the princesses as they begin to step on to the world stage. They were sweet and pretty and unvarnished by the previous scandals. Always with an eye toward publicity, the royal family brought a media team with them on their vacation/world tour. The intention was to begin to warm the public to the young, vivacious girls and was a not at all veiled attempt to prop up their family values stance in the first family royal. Bertie was exhibiting something that was rare in 1947 but that we can connect with today: family values and work/life balance.
[Also, I would like to point out the two princesses were the only young ladies on a ship full of 1700 young navy men. Yeah, royal life is tough, right?]
In a brilliantly scripted reality show style, the BBC showed clips of princesses playing deck games, a king in shorts, and the glowing Queen Mother, well…glowing. It was on this tour that Princess Elizabeth stepped into the limelight, supporting the family duty of shoring up world opinion and pulling the Empire back into line. The monarchy’s status was on the line and Elizabeth, the future monarch, was the star of the constant media attention. Remember, this was pre-world-wide-web, so the BBC was covering all of this via underwire cables and radio waves. Their navy ship had an in-house recording studio (there was still a lot of radio back then) and famed BBC journalist Frank Gillard was an embedded. At the time the BBC was the premier royal propaganda machine, ready and willing to showcase the perfect little royal family. Little did they know that a handsome interloper was waiting in the wings. Princess Elizabeth was a major product launch for the House of Windsor and it was very successful—she killed it!
Royal PR Lesson: Outshine the Critics
When your brand is in trouble, having a spectacular new product to share with the world is one way to change the tide. Having a secret weapon, which for many companies would be a great product or feel good story, on the back burner is helpful when you need to fill the airwaves with positive vibes. The instinct is to run to the media with every bit of news, but savvy practitioners know that keeping one great story on hand just in case can keep you one step ahead of the media beast.
Sadly, the misery and suffering of the citizens of England was also at the top of the news, along with Princess Elizabeth’s debut. Fuel shortages led to loss of heat in the worst winter on record and brought most businesses to a halt—they literally could not keep the lights on due to coal shortages. However King George stayed the course, becoming the first British monarch to visit South Africa.
One thing that I was surprised to learn is that it seems Black Africans supported The Crown, as it had been British rule that reduced slavery in South Africa—they viewed the monarchy as a ray of light and the hope of change. More recent articles show a complicated history, but the crowds of adoring fans welcoming the royal family were equally black and white—sadly they had to be separate, but eventually the king crossed the lines and refused to maintain the standard separation. Unbeknownst to the the king, he was being welcomed by the South African Prime Minister with the main motivation of retaining his power during the uprisings of Apartheid. He saw his relationship with the royal family as a feather in his cap—one that would keep him in power. The King was quite anti-racist (he saw all Africans as his people, well-before it was in vogue) and pushed back hard against the South African governments attempts to keep him completely segregated, which the Prime Minister hoped would boost his political party, but as we know, South Africa soon fell into Apartheid.
Are you beginning to see that it is always about the publicity and the optics, regardless of what side you are on in political situations? The king was sent on tour as a publicity stunt while his war-torn country was drowning in poverty and misery. The Queen was always on, always propping up the publicity machine, even though she acknowledged in her letters that the tour was damaging to the king’s mental and physical health. The tour was a 10-week, daily grind of a media tour disguised as a well-choreographed working vacation.
The tour and product launch were quite successful in reaching the goals of softening and modernizing the conception of the monarchy worldwide.. Soon after the family’s return to England, Princess Elizabeth was engaged to Prince Philip and they were quickly married. This was the first publicity-focused royal wedding, an event to show the youth, rebirth, and future of the monarchy. Four years later, Princess Elizabeth suddenly (much like her father) became Queen, perhaps without an understanding the exact twists and turns, she inherited The House of Windsor after the family had executed a nearly flawless multi-decade rebrand.
Royal PR Lesson: Have Time on Your Side
One hit wonders rarely accomplish much. Have a long-term plan for building your brand. Understand where you are going tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade, and with the next generation. Branding is not a set-it-and-forget it endeavor.
The Man and The Media
One thing the royal plotters and planners may not have foreseen is technological advancements in broadcasting that would allow them to showcase their young, bright new product in vibrant technicolor. Queen Elizabeth, bringing a new Elizabethan Age, swept into the living rooms of almost every British citizen in glorious color, and exploding reality.
Modernizing the royal family in an everchanging world became the priority in the 1950s and their survival was secured by an unprecedented media scheme—a royal documentary produced by the BBC showing the Windsor’s in everyday activities—humanizing them for the first time to many. As it often happens, it was an outsider who saw the simmering public opinion issues and forced the modernization of the royal family: Prince Philip Mountbatten. While still a princess, Elizabeth had been able to be a doting housewife to her handsome, ambitious husband. Sadly, her father died suddenly, and Elizabeth became the Queen of England in 1952. Elizabeth remembered her Uncle’s abdication, her father’s struggles, and the recent success of the Windsor rebrand—and was trained and prepared to maintain her father’s publicity strategies as the new CEO and Chairman of the Board of the royal organization.
One area where Prince Philip was not modern was in the tradition of marital names. His children and wife were Windsor, not Mountbatten, his given name. With the Queen Mother still living in their home (it’s an 828,820 square foot palace, so I’m sure they hardly ever saw her!) Philip had an internal adversary. It would be like the CEO, VP and the largest shareholder all living together.
Philip had German ancestry and the Queen Mother still carried the burden of what that had meant for the monarchy only a few decades before. Queen Mary (the grandmother) was still on the scene too, so Philip was outnumbered; one alpha male set against three queens. Plus, Churchill, who didn’t want to give up any gains with the public by having Philip change the royal family’s name from Windsor to Mountbatten. The queen declared publicly and legally that they would all retain Windsor and while she won major PR points with the public, it did not go over well at home. Probably not the first CEO who picked their company over their spouse.
Prince Philip is like the VP who won’t stay in the background. However, the Queen is always in the front (literally he has to walk four paces behind his wife in public) and his role is simply and only to support The Queen. His personality was not cut out for a do-nothing role and their internal family conflict spilled out into public. He was the first to publicly kneel before her at her coronation as officials and guests shouted, ‘God save the Queen.’ Historic reviews show what turmoil all of this caused in the marriage.
As a modern man (save for the patriarchal naming issue) Philip spun-out in his role as arm-candy to the Queen. The royal marriage was under huge pressure and while it might seem quaint now, these types of issues were not widely discussed in the media, even about famous people. When he traveled alone on the royal yacht for four months, questions started popping up in the news while American media reported years-old gossip about affairs and incidents. In a rare move, the palace actually issued a denial of rumors, which only fueled the reprints of the gossip. The Queen had to get on a plane to go see Philip, making sure that all of the media was aware that they were together, to ensure the public saw the marriage as stable.
Royal PR Lesson: Do not address rumors and hearsay
It feels wildly unfair to have people talking about your or your organization but when it comes to gossip and the media, acknowledging rumors by denying them almost always fuels the story. Most organizations need to respond to media inquiries and to provide transparent, honest answers, but when it is baseless gossip (or even if there is a base) do not engage.
The Media Goes Mainstream
The royal family had to brace for the turning tide as they had always maintained total control of media. At this time the modern press was beginning to become more interested in the sordid stories that lurked behind the royal façade. Expecting their third child, the issue of the family name came to the fore again. With prodding from Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, The two Mountbatten men launched a campaign to have the royal names changed to Mountbatten-Windsor, even going so far as to conspire with an unscrupulous attorney who publicly suggested that royal children who kept their mother’s maiden name would be “bastards” and considered illegitimate—never mind that said mother is the Queen of England!
Even though this was 1960, it was not possible for the royal family to face a single allegation of illegitimacy or have one constituent consider royal heirs somehow reduced, so under duress, the Queen, by royal decree, changed the family name to Mountbatten-Windsor—a move to sooth the growing public outcry over maternal naming and the not so private anger of her husband. Legal and politically, the royal family is The House of Windsor, but as individuals, they share a hyphenated last name. Philip won the day, using unseemly, yet affective, propaganda techniques.
But, being 1960, pretty soon, no one cared or remembered. Other than the bad marriage press coverage and the name dust-up, the royal family had relaxed into domestic duties—the Queen managing her required schedule, but also attempting to protect her children. As we know, in the 1960s popular culture and society became about youth, freedom, peach, love, and the tearing down of traditions—including abolishing the monarchy. The public was tired of paying such high taxes for a monarchy that they never saw and could not connect with. People started to care more about equality and sameness than tradition, while the whole of Brittan was moving towards modernization, the monarchy was clinging to ancient tradition. Ever hear of Trouping the Colours? It is basically inspecting the military, with all the horses and big hats. Not very groovy in 1960.
Royal PR Lesson: Understand the Difference Between Tradition & Apathy
Every day in modern PR we see companies taken down by bad press because they could not or would not move into the present. An overwhelming number of consumers (low estimates are 66%) expect brands to take on and embrace social issues. Doing what you have always done is great when it comes to providing great service or building a great product but it be the end of the beginning if an organization is holding on simply because it is safest to do what they have always done. Someone has to drive the brand even during changing times.
A 360° Aproach
At this time, Prince Philip began to see a general loss of affection from the people of Britain and sees his chance to propel his version of the best propaganda plan forward. His answer: TV. Palace traditionalists were deeply offended by this idea, but Philip pushed for the modernization rebrand. The Queen, not wanting another private family fight to seep into the public eye, agreed to the televised documentary of her family. The portrayal of the family as regular people was considered groundbreaking at the time. Hard to imaging in a world of Jerry Springer, the Kardashians and The Bachelor. The film was watched by a full 2/3 of the British population and as predicted by Philip, the propaganda film created a swell of admiration and support of the monarchy, launching Philip onto the world stage.
In modern PR we know that for celebrity or high-profile brands, publicity is a double-edged sword. Most businesses chase it but a few reach the top and avoid the media at all costs. The film débuted right when the media and the public were developing an appetite for the airing of dirty laundry and the familiarity it created between the public and the royal family whetted the masses appetite for the TMZ-paparazzi world that was quickly come to pass.
They could not have known, but maybe they should have guessed, that the media they played like a fine instrument to turn on adoring fans would nearly ruin the monarchy a decade later, killing one of history’s most beloved royals.
Royal PR Lesson: Launch Early
Done is better than perfect. Do not wait until a product is perfect to launch it. Start, because you do not know what you will learn in the early days that can be instrumental in building your long term plans.
A New Hope
No, not Luke Skywalker, the other one, Prince Charles.
The media beast had been unleashed just at the time that Prince Charles was making his way to the public sphere in the late 1960s. When Charles was debuted as the new face of the monarchy (1969) at his Investiture, there was as much pomp and circumstance the monarchy could muster—the entire event was developed as a very calculated public television media spectacle that drew 500 million worldwide viewers. Prince Charles, blossoming under the shadow of his Uncle David who had abdicated, oddly, since historians note that they only met once, was less like the manly leader the monarchy had hoped for and more like the off-beat rebel uncle that he barely knew. This was an organizational succession plan that was written in stone but that did not take into consideration the actual people involved in the process. Family businesses are often fraught with personal dysfunction and interpersonal strife that undermine the progress of the organization. It was no different for The House of Windsor. Having survived several publicity fails, the family—the organization—was in constant fear of facing another public meltdown.
Often organizations are swayed by powerful people on the sidelines, such as investors and board members, and The House of Windsor was no different. Historians now have access to documents that prove that Lord Mountbatten (Prince Philips Uncle) was a driving force in the molding of the new young Prince’s image and reputation. When the disgraced former King George VI, Uncle David, died, millions upon millions of citizens came to honor him, much to the discomfort of The Crown. Once again, the royal family had failed to understand where public sentiment held fast, even against their vast attempts at media positioning that wrote King George out of the story.
Another simmering issue that was similar to David, was Prince Charles’ inappropriate relationship. We all know now of Prince Charles’ ongoing affair with Camilla Parker Bowles and that love story was the main issue that the monarchy worried about becoming public. When people are your brand, the media and the public are keenly interested in what those people are doing—in and out of the spotlight. The press had become hungry for stories and Prince Charles was chased all over the globe by pesky reporters.
Now you may have noticed that I have shared no news stories of Princess Anne and the younger royal siblings. Since Anne was not in line for the throne, her life—her comings and goings—were less scrutinized. In the seventies, the print media was incredibly competitive, so every tip was pounced on and a proper, less famous sibling was just not that interesting.
In 1976, Charles’ aunt, Princess Margret, was exposed as having an extramarital affair and for the first time in history, the royal family was on the front page of every UK newspapers with a verifiable story of sexual infidelity. This scandal really broke the barrier for the media and is seen as the beginning of the paparazzi that we are all too familiar with today. Very few families have the unfortunate situation where their personal issues are also their public relations issues. The harder the family pushed Prince Charles to live up to his well-crafted image, the harder he pushed back against the family business and all of its requirements. Few people are in the position where their personal decisions—their love affairs and such—are also business decisions. Few people care who a prominent CEO marries, but many people care who the future king marries.
The House of Windsor had other geopolitical publicity issues in the seventies to go along with the affairs. The Irish Republican Army was a paramilitary group that launched violent and nonviolent attacks against the British Army, further sullying the monarchy’s reputation on the world stage. It was not until 2005 that the IRA ended their violent uprising against Brittan’s occupation of Ireland. Prince Charles beloved great uncle, Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA in 1979.
Royal PR Lesson: YOU Are Not Your Brand
Yes, you can build your brand and you are responsible for your brand, but it is your customers and your audience that live and breathe your brand. Branding is a two-way engagement: you communicate your brand and your public lives it. If you are at odds with your audience, you will feel the fractures. You cannot tell people what your brand is, you have to live it and they have to live it too.
The People’s Princess
The House of Windsor, more specifically the royal parental unit, put enormous pressure on Charles to marry as that was viewed as the next step in the highly calculated royal strategic plan. The monarchy felt strongly that a sweet, quiet, unknown, proper girl, named Lady Diana Spencer, would be the ideal wife for Charles and so it was decided.
Once again, the royal family expected that their business would be the top priority for anyone who joined the organization and they all learned quickly that towing the company line was not what Princess Diana was about. Three-quarters of a billion—yes, a billion!—people from 74 countries (and one little girl in Oregon) watched Princess Diana marry Prince Charles, which later was reported as the single most destructive scandal to hit the monarchy.
Diana was a teenager when she started dating Prince Charles and she was diametrically opposed to everything that the royals stood for—even though she was easily the most beloved royal of any time. It was called “the wedding of the century” and it launched a media obsession yet to be matched. You know the saying: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Diana was schooled and scolded in the ways of proper royal behavior, but she was an immature, independent, opinionated girl who had no interest in following protocol. She was not a team player and she was not a culture fit. Diana looked great on paper, she appeared to coachable, but those fantasies were squashed almost immediately.
Prince Charles wanted a quiet, supportive, stay-at-home and definitely stay away from the cameras type of mother, who would look good on a stamp in twenty or thirty years. What he got was a troubled, outspoken, stubborn, shortsighted celebrity who both craved and crashed under the media scrutiny. As a brand ambassador, the royal machine loved her celebrity and pull, however, like most celebrity spokespeople, Princess Diana had her own authentic brand.
Royal PR Lesson: Culture
If you have worked for decades to build your unique culture, make sure that those you invite to join your organization are open to and capable of assuming that culture. No matter how smart or amazing an employee, partner, or vendor is, if they do not share your values—or worse, work against those values—you will not be able to mold them into a cultural fit. Yes, look for diversity, but understand when you are faced with opposition.
Diana suffered from mental illness and later in her life openly discussed her battles with depression and bulimia. She was barely grown from her traumatic childhood and like most people, she was devastated by, and fearful of, the constant, aggressive media attention. Yet her popularity, her sheer star power, was unstoppable. And unfortunately not stoppable by the House of Windsor. The Prince and Princess of Wales were global phenomenon, but 90% of the attention—the press and the public—went to Princess Diana. So now you have two royal ambassadors, with drastically different personal brands, vying for attention. Princess Diana did not ask for the attention, but she was brilliant at managing the image—so brilliant that she outshone the rest of the royal family. She was not born royal, but she was born to be royal.
As their marriage began to fail, Prince Diana threw herself into her public and charitable work, which normally was supported by the monarchy, however, she purposely chose what they viewed as controversial causes. Historians have recently revealed that the Queen was so offended by Princess Diana’s colorful choices, she finally was forced to ask Princess Diana to reign in her community involvement. Given what we know, that did not go over well and likely pushed Princess Diana even further from the fold.
The 1990s brought various royal scandals as it became common knowledge that Prince Charles continued to carry on his extramarital affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. The Queen’s daughter-in-law, the Duchess of York, known to you and me as Princess Fergie, was blasted in the media for her extramarital affair, and divorced shortly thereafter. Princess Anne got divorced. And Princess Diana’s love affair became front page news as well. It wasn’t enough that these indiscretions were discovered, there was art! Princess Diana was caught on tape confessing her love of someone other than her husband and Fergie was photographed topless, as her lover sucked her toes. I am sure the queen cursed the day she ever let the media into her life. Problem not out loud though.
In 1992 the quiet, staid House of Windsor had gone to the dogs and the respectable royals were furious. The royal siblings were acting up and out of line and Princess Diana was famously photographed sitting alone at the Taj Mahal when she was supposed to be enjoying a romantic getaway with her husband. Prince Philip, the original outsider, and the only royal who had not suffered a tragic publicity scandal, attempted to step in to calmly right the reputation ship.
Then Windsor Castle went up in flames. Literally. Not that having your residence catch fire due to no fault of your own is a PR fail, but the media attention, and specifically, the optics were less than ideal. As flames engulfed part of the castle on live television, firemen were filmed rescuing not people, but millions and millions upon more millions of dollars of antiques, valuables, and royal collectables. So much for that everyman-image Prince Philip was working so hard to maintain for the royal family. At a time when people really cared about the differences between the haves and have-nots, Queen Elizabeth attempted to bond with her people, sharing her concern over the various scandals, unfortunately she chose to do so in Latin, further alienating her from the crowds of royal watchers. 1992 ended with Prince Charles and Princes Diana announcing their formal separation. The nineties were a pivotal time for the media as well. Reality and celebrity television were just taking off and the marketplace busted at the seams with new, glossy print gossip—oh, I mean lifestyle—magazines. Personal access to technology fueled a worldwide public worship for celebrity.
However, royals, unlike actors and singers, never leave their careers—they are expected to perform for a lifetime. Princess Diana seemed to live on champagne and charm as she toured the world and even made the embarrassing move of bringing her political ambitions into play. The unhappy couple fought to upstage the other on the world stage and media reports from the time indicate that each would leak unflattering stories of the other to the media. The mantra of the monarchy was to never complain and never explain—but Princess Diana was the ultimate complainer and explainer, sharing deeply private issues of her marriage with the press. Yet in the public eye, she was a super hot Mother Teresa in a Gucci gown.
Princess Diana became aware that some observers were tiring of watching her do good deeds on the daily, so she pivoted to politics, much to the horror of The House of Windsor. And just on cue, Prime Minister Tony Blair—the then young, exciting liberal political leader of England, arrived on the scene. As often happen, stars attract stars, and Blair worked behind the scenes with Princess Diana to further each other’s goals: his was to modernize Brittan, hers was to modernize the monarchy. Of course, the Queen was horrified. But she jumped the gun on her shock and dismay because Princess Diana used the monarch’s trick of playing to the media against them by having a shockingly personal television interview. Diana was devastatingly honest and played the sweet victim, confirming her husband’s affair and questioning his fitness as king. The interview stirred up some public sentiment and support for Princess Diana, while historians and scholars began to publicly question the institution of royalty. However many of Diana’s supporters felt that her pointed and personal attack on the monarchy was too much, including her frenemy the Queen, who issued her permission for her to divorce Prince Charles after the interview went public. She basically got cancelled.
The media was still enthralled by her, but she was left without the already flimsy support of The House of Windsor. During this time, Princess Diana secretly became a private image consultant to the Prime Minister, while publicly her love life and travels were covered constantly. During this time she was dating international playboy Dodi Fayed, a billionaire film producer who had quite a reputation of his own—also, seemingly unimportant, but actually totally important: he was a Muslim. The brown kind. So now the royal PR machine had to deal with the optics of their alabaster Anglican Princess potentially marrying a Muslim playboy.
Royal PR Lesson: Celebrity is Not Good for a Brand
Every organization wants their CEO to rise to fame as world-renown leader, however in most cases, celebrity always outshines the brand. While there are many benefits to adding rock stars to your team (as employees or ambassadors) you have little control over how brightly their star shines and in which direction it will skyrocket or flame out.
Too much of a good thing: when The Paparazzi Kills
The public relations irony of the situation following the death of Princess Diana as a means to both elevate The House of Windsor and possibly bring its demise cannot be overstated. Her death stopped the world for one tragic moment and British historians still discuss the impact of that fatal car crash, and the royal activities (or lack thereof) in the following days. Millions of supporters arrived to offer their condolences at Buckingham Palace while the entire House of Windsor vacationed far away, barely acknowledging Princess Diana’s death. It was too much for the public to bear and the royal family watched and sulked as Princess Diana became even more famous and adored than when she was alive.
The House of Windsor was in crisis once again and they could not or would not even comment. Prime Minister Tony Blair urged the family to at least make a minimum public acknowledgement of the princess’ death. By all modern accounts the queen was forced back into duty and begrudgingly made a public statement a full week later. Surprisingly, once she spoke for less than two minutes and shook a few hands, hearts were warmed, and everyone got back to mourning The People’s Princess. All the queen had to do was bow her head and all was well. The world will always wonder, was the Queen really staying out of the public eye as a means to protect Princess Diana’s two young boys or was she simply so fed up with all of Princess Diana’s stunts and scandals that she would not even face her in death.
Like many organizations that suffer a public relations crisis, it was after Diana’s death that the royal family engaged a group of consultants, named the Way Ahead Group, to begin new strategic plans and to provide updated issues and reputation management. Some traditional customs were changed and the group maintained a focus on learning lessons from the past.
Princess Diana’s death had brought the country and the monarchy to a standstill, but two months later, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were out and about with the public, celebrating their wedding anniversary, as just like with her grandparents, public walkabouts were prescribed as an antidote to public resentment.
Royal PR Lesson: Pace Yourself
Chasing news clips and media mentions is not actually a requirement for large organizations. If you or your company tends to shy away from prying eyes, you may be worried about the lack of media attention. However, doing very little sometimes gains a lot: if you never react, the smallest reaction causes quite a stir. So if you eschew media attention, it could serve you well when you do find yourself uncomfortably at the center of a media crisis.