Analysis: Royal Family botches PR over Burrell

As former Royal butler Paul Burrell's book hits the shops and the dignity of the Royal Family, Adam Hill canvasses former palace insiders for their views on how the royals can salvage their increasingly battered reputation

Damaging revelations about the Royal Family, and the late Princess of Wales in particular, are nothing new. Paul Burrell, the former butler who says he only wants to 'defend the Princess and stand in her corner' is simply part of a recent trend.

What distinguishes Burrell's book, A Royal Duty, from past revelations, is his apparent use of personal correspondence. This intimacy has provided the means to damage the Royal household's reputation severely. Dismissing this as simply a fact of media life - one ex-palace PR source says: 'Sometimes the tabloid press just want the red meat' - does not do justice to the gravity of the situation.

Yet, former palace insiders are hardly rushing to suggest that the Royal household have an alternative communications strategy. 'I'm not terribly sure you can,' says former Buckingham Palace spokesman Dickie Arbiter.

'It's just a question of carrying on. You hope there aren't going to be any loose cannons among your staff.'

Colleen Harris, press secretary to Prince Charles until last week, echoes Arbiter's view. 'It is difficult to say "we'll have a more proactive strategy".

You are talking about personal conversations (between Burrell and the Princess of Wales), which you can't confirm or deny. You are dealing with personal issues, not policies, products or projects. These are people's lives.'

A more cogent argument might be that, despite the Daily Mirror's serialisation of the book, it is simply too early to tell whether the monarchy's reputation has been damaged. Simon Lewis, the private sector expert drafted in on a two-year secondment as the Queen's communications secretary in 1998, says: 'It's only after the dust has settled that you can assess what impact, if any, a period of media frenzy will have. The point about the monarchy, like any institution, is that communications has to be seen in a long-term perspective, because the time horizon is different from the normal political and corporate process.'

But one former insider says: 'At the time, you have to assess whether stories are extremely serious, not very serious or trivial. Some stories are front-page news for a day. This one was there for longer than that, which is not a bad barometer.'

The statement from the Prince of Wales's London residence, Clarence House, in which Princes William and Harry spoke of Burrell's 'cold and overt betrayal' - and subsequently offered to meet the former employee - seems to be more or less the only attempt at media relations over the past few weeks.

But Arbiter believes it was the wrong thing to do. 'I don't think Clarence House has been very clever,' he says. 'Why go for a meeting when there is a whacking great book about to come out, with acres of revelations?

Burrell has been dining out on this supposed olive branch of a meeting.

It provided the oxygen of publicity.'

Harris's hackles rise at the suggestion that the princes' statement was ill-conceived: 'That was not part of any PR strategy. It was heartfelt, and William and Harry had a right to say it. The statement was never intended to stop the book being published. They just didn't want further revelations.

It was not a PR stunt.'

The injection of private sector PR expertise into the Royal household must have made it more adept at dealing with media crises, but advice is not forthcoming - at least in public.

Neither Mark Bolland, former deputy private secretary to the Prince of Wales, nor Simon Walker, Lewis's successor, were available for comment.

Harris, who is moving to the Commission for Racial Equality, refuses to be drawn on the future. Paddy Harveson, the former Manchester United PR chief who takes over Bolland's former role in 2004, also declined to comment.

If nothing else, the Burrell serialisation shows that betrayal is clearly in the eye of the beholder. Arbiter believes there have been positives from the media interest. 'It showed that both the Queen and Prince Philip were compassionate towards (the Princess of Wales),' he says.

But another former Royal adviser suggests that the opposite view of Prince Philip's motives in his correspondence could easily be taken - his letters have been described as 'creepy' and 'lecherous' in at least one newspaper report.

Ultimately, the monarchy adheres to different rules from, say, a political party or a corporation. 'I have always had my doubts about whether spinning is compatible with running comms for an institution such as the monarchy, which, after all, embodies the head of state,' he points out.

But there is still no admission of any failing in communications from the Royal Household over the Burrell affair, although employee confidentiality agreements will no doubt be even more heavily scrutinised.

Arbiter believes 'dignified silence' would have been the best strategy all round, which is tantamount to business as usual. The Roman emperor Nero never actually played the fiddle while Rome burned. But he may have recognised this situation.

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