It's Monday morning, and I am just giving the gilded PRWeek PR
Professional of the Year trophy a dust off in advance of today's meeting
with Mark Bolland, when I receive a call from Coleen Harris, press
secretary at St James's Palace, to say that lunch at Le Caprice is off
and the long-arranged trophy handover postponed.
The trophy has been decorating my desk since the PRWeek Awards ceremony
on 31 October when, at Bolland's request, I took to the stage to receive
it on his behalf. Prince Charles's deputy private secretary had been
fulsome in his gratitude when he learnt a couple of days prior to the
event that he had been chosen by the panel of judges, and his official
statement emphasised that that he was pleased to have been so honoured,
particularly as he had never considered himself a PR practitioner.
It was, of course, this denial of involvement in PR, rather than his
acceptance of the award, that interested the nationals but sources close
to St James's suggest that he is secretly delighted. The edge must have
been taken off any enjoyment, however, by the post-awards coverage
including a piece by The Daily Telegraph's Tom Leonard suggesting that
the 'adulation of the PR industry was likely to strengthen accusations
that spin doctors are too dominant in St James's Palace.'
And as Simon Heffer pointed out in his recent piece in The Spectator,
Bolland's attempt to remain behind the scenes 'took a knock' when
PRWeek's award pointed to his considerable achievement in not only
steering Prince Charles with dignity through the period following the
tragic death of the Princess of Wales but also helping to move the
perception of the Prince's relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles into
a more positive phase.
So I am not exactly surprised when the call comes through delaying the
hand delivery of the gong, described in this instance by the Daily
Mail's Ephraim Hardcastle column as 'a poisoned chalice'.
It is, however, disappointing - to put it mildly - given the unholy
storm that has broken over Bolland's St James's office in the past
couple of weeks. Lord Conrad Black's media group appears to have
embarked on a concerted campaign against the senior royal aide with
Heffer claiming in The Spectator that Bolland had 'spun' his employer at
the expense of other members of the Royal Family, followed by a report
in the Saturday Telegraph claiming that Bolland had leaked damaging
stories to the press and that there was growing anger at the Palace.
During last week, the row spread beyond the Hollinger empire, the Mail
hitting back at the 'Revenge of the Old Guard' and The Guardian crowing
over the war between the two papers 'competing for the same shrinking
Tory audience.' I was looking forward to hearing Bolland's side of the
story, even off the record.
In the meantime the list of Bolland's supposed crimes grows day by
The real problem seems to be not that he isn't good at his job. Far from
it. Not one of even the most scathing reports suggests that the PRWeek
accolade was unjustified.
He has made giant steps in terms of the positioning of Prince Charles
and crucially Camilla Parker Bowles, but some claim these gains were at
the expense of other members of the Royal Family whose relationship with
the media has been more fraught.
Inevitable comparisons have been made with Peter Mandelson, with whom
Bolland met regularly when the architect of New Labour's communication
strategy still sat at the heart of government. There is a similarity in
working methods. Mandelson, like Bolland, would be loathe to call
himself a PR man, but - like Bolland - was the strategic guiding force
behind media relations carried out by others.
Bolland, like Mandelson, is rarely involved in day-to-day press
briefings, but few doubt that the strategy that has led to a warmer
relationship between the media and St James' is his creation. He is also
known to have nurtured close links with a coterie of friendly royal
correspondents and editors such as the Mail's royal correspondent
Richard Kay, and News of the World editor Rebekah Wade.
Some of the most damming accusations in the media surround a series of
leaks from St James's such as the details of the private telephone call
between Prince William and his father over filming by Prince Edward's
production company Ardent Productions, the dressing down that Prince
Charles apparently gave his brother, and the rumour that the Prince of
Wales thought his brother should be removed from the Civil List.
It has also been reported that the Wessexes believe that Bolland used
the aftermath of the now notorious fake sheikh incident, to underline
the distinct culture of St James's and to promote Prince Charles's
opposition to the concept of working royals. 'I think that the Countess
of Wessex has created her own problems' says Jane Atkinson, former media
adviser to the Princess of Wales and a Bell Pottinger director. 'But it
seems to me that what Mark has done is to distance these from the
integrity of St James's Palace - which is the right thing to do. Whether
he did it in the right way is a more sensitive issue.'
According to a source close to the Palace, there are two schools of
thought on Bolland's approach: 'The first school is that anything that
is good for Prince Charles has to be good for the monarchy. That if he
is held in high esteem it has to be good for the long-term future of the
Royal Family. That is the long-term view. The other school says that
that you can't have a person who operates like a political spin doctor
within the Palace. The Monarchy is about being above politics.'
Other more subtle crimes include being young (just 35), comprehensive
school-educated and an immensely powerful force within an establishment
more used to old Etonians. Prince Charles is obviously fiercely
defensive of his adviser, resisting pressure from the Queen's senior
courtiers to dismiss him. While Camilla Parker Bowles' loyalty to
Bolland is not surprising since he is mainly responsible for the
increasing legitimacy of her relationship with the future King of
England. There must be real concerns in some quarters that this 'spin
doctor' could become the real power behind the future monarchy.
However, the fact that Bolland is an astute and active media manager
should surely come as no surprise. Before joining St James's in 1996,
Bolland was not a courtier but a media expert. As the former director of
the Press Complaints Commission he was brought into daily contact with
the UK's most powerful editors, and he was initially recommended for his
current role on the basis of his excellent handling of the press's
treatment of Mrs Parker Bowles' private life. His brief was, to some
extent, an open book.
But will the bruising that he has now received at the hands of the media
lead, as the Telegraph suggests, to the search for a new role? The
repositioning of the relationship between Prince Charles and Camilla
Parker Bowles can only be judged a great success.
So much so, that some suggest that Bolland may have completed the job he
was hired to do. 'I think he did a good job and has achieved what
everyone assumes to be his objective. Now he is getting some bad
publicity so to stop the downward spiral he needs to have another
objective to focus on,' says Atkinson.
Certainly with next year's Golden Jubilee, Buckingham Palace is going to
be keen to dampen down speculations as to divisions between the two
courts. There have been suggestions that Prince Charles's role might be
overshadowed by the Golden Jubilee celebrations. An unsubtle response to
such a threat could, however, lead to Prince Charles's own profile
dominating at a time when the focus should be on the Queen. The most
appropriate positioning may require more of an atmosphere of detente
between the two courts, and perhaps the move towards a closer working
relationship between Bolland and the Queen's communications secretary
The lure of the court, the potential of the role and the unswerving
loyalty of the Prince of Wales, would certainly make this a very
difficult role for anyone who enjoys the trappings of power to turn
their back on. And if he were to leave, what role would Bolland
gravitate towards? Despite protestations that he is not currently
involved in public relations per se, would he consider a more overt role
PR role in the future, perhaps even as a communications director in the
private sector, or even as the Telegraph suggests launch his own
Atkinson believes the transition wouldn't be easy: 'Most of the time we
are trying to keep things out of the press or to position companies in
the press. He has a product that will be in the media whatever happens -
so you are managing the media in the same way that I did with Princess
of Wales. But that doesn't make you a PRO.'
Unfortunately, the only person who really knows the answer to these
questions is Bolland. It looks as if I will just have to dust off the
gong again in the new year.