The following originally appeared on huffingtonpost.co.uk on June 2nd
In the run-up to the Jubilee juggernaut, the western media has become obsessed with the newfound brand success of the British Royal Family aka Brand GB – pomp and circumstance consolidated holdings. Whatever your feelings on Good Queen Bess and her spawn, it’s impossible to ignore the remarkable difference in public attitudes-particularly among younger demographics- to those you’d have found at a similar point in safety-pinned ’77 or icily indifferent ’02. However, is it all really so rosy? Or is this just another fad? Perhaps, arguably, the greatest PR turnaround for any institution.
The Jubilee is a time for nostalgia, so let’s look back. When Lillibet placed herself upon the throne in a docile fashion in ’52, it was in uneasy shape. A collapsing Empire, a half-baked socialist zeitgeist and the ominous first tremors of the multifarious cultural revolutions to come were imperceptibly weakening the crown’s hold over the Nation. As an organisation, too, the Royal Family was troubled: a gaggle of distant siblings led by an increasingly remote matriarch.
Her initial decade or so in power saw a golden period with the public. Over the subsequent 50 years, however, the Royal Brand’s PR fortunes waxed and waned. The overall trend was destructive. The rise of the tabloid press, the growing disruptive iconoclasm associated with late 20th century youth culture and some ridiculously poorly judged behaviour on the part of key figures culminated in a post-Diana brand ground zero. The monarchy barely figured in public attention at all, other than when the media got it together to disinterestedly spit some bile at Harry’s latest sartorial nasty or nightclub fumble. Not a great idea to dress up as a Nazi for a night of revelry.
Possibly beginning with the surprising (eventual) success of 2002’s celebrations, a phoenix has since risen from the ashes. Thanks to a new cast possessed of a range of not unhelpful qualities from benign exuberance (Will and Kate) to roughish good cheer (Harry MK II, a bit like the last version but with approximately 20% less banter) to distractive assets like Pippa, the show has become a good deal more watchable. These, coupled with occasional use of well-managed legal and some admirably ego-free PR pixies pulling the strings, have comprised the kind of comprehensive brand laundering exercise rarely seen outside of BP’s Tony Hayward’s wet dreams.
The Will and Kate effect is a remarkable thing – anyone who’s seen me speak will know that I habitually hold it up as a shining case study to organisations and brands of all stripes. Their PR epitomises all that is great in good communications: healthy cynicism, transparency, definition, strategy, digital fluency, mutual understanding and, above all else, a compelling set of stories. I’m sure they’re genuinely very happy, but the Royal Couple presented to the public is also a triumph of propaganda. Even a genuflection to Hollywood royalty?
The sum total of it all is that the Royals have made sense of themselves for the popular understanding again. They struggled before because they didn’t have a purpose in an increasingly fragmented world: they had no power, no authority, no meaning. What they’ve done is to spot a pertinent niche in the public appetite- an austerity fed hunger for Downton-esque pomp and circumstance- and cleverly slotted in to fill it as a cuddly comfort blanket.
In some ways, I get the media surprise: when things were bad, they were really really bad. Prince Edward’s Right Royal Knockout remains one of the most excruciating moments in TV history (though one, it must always be pointed out, never endorsed by her majesty).
However, one should never underestimate the power of a royal PR machine honed over centuries of carefully managed events and stunts. From Queen Victoria’s expertly judged publication of her youthful diaries in 1868 to Kate and Wills’s post balcony kiss, open top Aston Martin photo-op, the Royals’ appreciation for event PR has seen more highs than lows.
The concern now has to be deepening and drawing out this purpose. The problems on the horizon aren’t hard to spot. Theoretically at least, Britain is at some point going to snap out of recession and go back to cheerfully consuming itself into meaningless emptiness, no kitsch nostalgia necessary. What’s more, no amount of socio-historical theorising can ignore the fact that, where the current monarch is a cuddly old dear, and her assumed successors are a friendly scout leader and his fit spouse, her actual successor is a malodorous, gypsy-poaching organic food baron. Now there’s a PR disaster waiting to happen. Publicity gets more than a little tiring. You want it, you need it, you crave it, and you’re scared as hell when it stops
The natural next step is for a Royal birth and christening, something I’m sure is figuring heavily in the prayers of Palace officials. The Jubilee will make an peerless experiential marketing event, and one which will undoubtedly bewitch the rest of the world. We’ll see a boost in tourism and a greater confidence in Britain as a potential safe place for money from beneath various European floorboards. Whilst I’m sure complacency won’t be creeping in any time soon, the issue is to capitalise on this success – it is only the beginning of a new, potentially more turbulent chapter.
Ah yes, some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers