What is the best present could Prince Charles hope to be unwrapping on his 60th birthday, today? He will get many, but I suspect that the period of calm that has prevailed at Clarence House over the last five years, interrupted occasionally by the binge drinking bouts and going-to-parties-dressed-in-Nazi-regalia adolescent antics of his 20-something sons, is the one he will be valuing most, as it will allow him to celebrate his birthday in relative peace.
For decades, the Prince, as part of the Royal Family, one of the biggest brands going, has suffered the slings and arrows of outraged and outrageous press coverage. He was, for a long time, damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. But things have changed of late; the Prince and, more importantly, the people he has surrounded himself with, have reengineered his public, charitable and state image and reinvigorated the Duchy Originals commercial brand as a going organic concern, despite the occasional hiccup over high salt and fat content, which has seen the Prince marry successfully his public and private concerns.
It’s a long time ago, now, since the Gymkhana days of the 1950s, when the Royal Family were closed for business at the weekend, and it is strange to think that there really was a time when one could phone up on a Friday at 5 p.m. and find that the pearly-necklaced debs who ran the public face of the Royal Family had all shuffled off to Gloucestershire and would not be back in until Monday.
That changed with the arrival of Princess Diana and the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. Diana’s cataclysmic arrival marked a sea change in the press – it was the beginning of the soap opera days and it took decades for the Royal Family to understand what had happened, let alone begin to cope with the consequences. It marked the beginning of the Heat and Closer era, where an unhealthy interest in the minutiae of a celebrity’s life was the order of the day.
The Royal Family simply couldn’t cope with this massive increase in daily interest; nor could they cope with a press who were less and less willing to kowtow to their way of running brand Windsor. Suddenly men like Kelvin Mackenzie at The Sun were refusing to play ball with brand Windsor’s cosy PR agenda. Princess Diana and, later, Fergie were “hold the front page” news. As a consequence, Diana and Fergie got to grips with the new PR agenda far more quickly than Prince Charles and the rest of brand Windsor.
This just amplified in the wake of Charles and Diana’s separation in 1993. Diana was a masterful player of personality PR, as the interview with Martin Bashir proved. Revelation after revelation tumbled like lead onto the head of Charles – his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles being the most damaging one, along with the reaction to Diana’s death from the Royal Family, which was out of step and out of tune with the rest of the country.
Since then, the people behind brand Windsor and particularly Prince Charles have been trying to re-brand their clients and understand how modern PR can be made to work for them. In the last 10 years, most celebrities have come to recognise that they are brands, but if you’d said that in the 1980s you would have been ignored and, in the case of brand Windsor, laughed out of court. It helps that the heir to the throne has always engaged in good works, but resentment, for many years, was never far from the surface of the popular press.
The last five years have seen something of a sea change in the perception of the Prince and his dealings with the world. His sons are part of this – apart from the odd fancy dress faux pas, they have inherited their mother’s easiness with the press. But the real power behind the man one step away from the throne is Paddy Harverson, who was appointed communications secretary at Clarence House in 2003.
There is no doubt that the Prince has needed people around him who recognise the importance of the brand, given the changing nature of the press and the rise of the importance of branding. They had to find someone they could trust, someone who was not part of the Royal Family’s usual coterie, so they brought in Harverson, whose reputation as a man who could make the best of troublesome situations preceded him. Working for the Royal Family is not the most rewarding job in PR. They needed someone with the skill to manage the most difficult of situations.
Harverson is certainly a man who understands how to manage difficult brands, supercharged egos and constant press attention – he left his job as the FT’s first sports correspondent to become the inaugural communications director at Manchester United, arguably the second largest British global brand after the Royal Family and equally full of different, difficult and diverse characters. He oversaw the departure of David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand’s drugs test and a great deal more in his three-year tenure at the club. Since 2003 he has set up an entirely new era in communications for Prince Charles and his sons, whilst maintaining a discreet low profile, again in a post especially created by Clarence House for him.
It was an inspired choice; in the last five years, he has managed the press relating to Harry’s Afghan trip, William’s relationship with Kate Middleton and, most importantly, the slow embrace by press and public of Camilla Parker Bowles in the run up to and wake of her marriage to Prince Charles, keeping a careful eye on breaking stories all the while.
Much of the antagonism towards Prince Charles and Camilla has dissipated on Harverson’s watch. Although there are still problems – as one might expect from the Royal Family – the focus has shifted away from them – the press now deals more with a prince who has married the woman he truly loves, whose work with the Prince’s Trust is much admired, whose opinions on green issues are, on the whole, respected.
Make no mistake, there will always be problems – Harverson has two boisterous, highly privileged young men to deal with and the honeymoon period of Charles and Camilla’s reintegration into the public’s affection is definitely over. If Prince Charles is to take the crown he needs to avoid the elephant traps that will always be there, waiting for him.
With Harverson looking out for him, however, Prince Charles has finally become the sort of man the British public might accept as their next monarch – quite a feat, given the travails of the 1980s and 1990s – and that really must be the best present a PR man can give. As long as Harverson keeps a weather eye out for the traps and doesn’t leave, everything will be fine, barring some horrendous revelation. Harverson would, without doubt, be a tough act to follow.