Royal Family puts Martin Bashir interview aside to embrace BBC and social media, but told to be wary of TikTok
For Radio 1’s teenage listeners, the Newsbeat reporters introduced as William and Kate might have sounded a little plummier than the bulletin’s regular contributors.
But the Prince and Princess of Wales’s message that mental health must move up the nation’s priority list resonated with the pop station’s audience and marked a new evolution in the couple’s engagement with the media.
The Queen’s death has given the core Royal Family members an opportunity to “reset” relations with a voracious media and explore new methods of communicating directly with the wider public, insiders say.
King Charles is enjoying a honeymoon period with newspapers which once ridiculed his environmental passions, aided by the Queen Consort’s down-to-earth style and, some say, an unpopular new Prime Minister soaking up public discontent.
Old enmities are being set aside under the media “reset”. Prince William gave the BBC a lashing over the deceptions employed by Martin Bashir to win the confidence of his mother, Diana, and demanded that the notorious Panorama interview never be shown again.
But the new Prince of Wales’s team still want to harness the power and reach of the national broadcaster.
The Newsbeat “takeover”, which followed an earlier BBC documentary in which William urged men to open up about their mental health, was considered a success. The BBC eagerly signed up as William’s partner for his Earthshot climate crisis challenge.
Although recorded before his accession to the throne, King Charles’s starring role in The Repair Show this month, where he will celebrate heritage craft skills on one of the BBC’s most popular programmes, is a perfect fit for Buckingham Palace.
Social media, a novelty for the royals when the Queen posted her first tweet in 2014, is now a central element in their communications strategy. The late monarch herself was no slouch when it came to technology, conducting meetings by Zoom during Covid and later when she was no longer well enough to attend in person.
The then Duke and Duchess of Cambridge indicated a push to boost their social media presence over the summer, when they advertised for a full-time “digital lead” based at Kensington Palace.
An expert in YouTube and Meta (Facebook and Instagram) engagement was sought to lead the “overall strategy and management of The Duke and Duchess’ official social media channels; driving compelling, creative and strategic social media content to communicate Their Royal Highnesses’ work to a wide range of audiences”.
The strategy is being coordinated by Lee Thompson, a global communications whizz hired from US media giant NBC, where he was credited with helping grow CNBC’s YouTube audience by 600 per cent, as the Cambridge’s new PR chief.
“They’ve brought in good advisers,” said Mark Borkowski, a PR expert. “The royals are in a battle to stay relevant so they have to use social media.”
“During the Queen’s reign, the royals stuck to the traditional media they knew. Social media allows the next generation to create content they can control through their own channels. But it has to look authentic not generic,” Borkowski said.
It can look as if William and Kate are “playing catch up” with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the media management guru said. “When Harry talks about mental health, he makes it sound very personal.”
Unlike his brother, William made an oblique reference to the death of his mother and focused on the wider public policy response when he spoke on Newsbeat.
Although they remain estranged, Harry and Meghan provided the impetus for the Cambridges’ revitalised media strategy.
Royal expert Katie Nicholl revealed in her book, The New Royals, that Meghan Markle’s “honed skills” and presentational polish at a 2018 event appearance by the one-time “Fab Four” was key in making Prince William and Kate realise they needed to “up their game”.
Kensington Palace purred when a clip of the Princess of Wales speaking to new mothers during a visit to Royal Surrey County Hospital went viral. Interrupted by a child’s coughing fit, Kate scrunched her nose and asked soothingly if the toddler was ok. The spontaneous moment was called “lovely” on Twitter.
William, who called on social media companies to ensure that vulnerable individuals are protected after the Molly Russell inquest verdict, is aware that the couple’s own children will grow up as digital natives in an online world demanding constant self-promotion.
Could Princess Charlotte use TikTok to share her daily news? “You would have concerns over the Royal Family getting too involved with a Chinese-owned company and the level of control it might want,” Borkowski warned.
There are limits to the Royal Family’s dance with popular media. “The media operation is a lot more sophisticated than it was 60 years ago. The move forward is by adapting to their mistakes and learning from failures,” Borkowski said.
“But I wouldn’t want to see King Charles chatting on The One Show.”