Analysis: Palace PROs forced onto back foot

The collapse of the Paul Burrell trial and claims of gay rape and cover-up by a former Royal valet made for a torrid fortnight for the Royal Family. Ian Hall assesses how Royal PROs proceed from here

Press office staff in the Royal palaces were beginning to return to normal routines this week after a fraught fortnight when allegations by various former Royal aides triggered a classic Fleet Street feeding frenzy.

Three main events caused the crisis. First up was the collapse of the trial of Paul Burrell, the former butler to the late Princess of Wales.

The Queen's intervention in the trial, in which Burrell was acquitted of theft charges, led to claims - strenuously denied by Buckingham Palace - she had done so to ensure no revelations damaging to Royal reputations would come out in court.

Secondly, George Smith, a former valet to the Prince of Wales, alleged he was raped by a fellow member of the household. He alleged St James's Palace had covered up the rape and that he had a further revelation which could 'inflict irreparable damage to the monarchy'.

Hot on the heels of this came allegations that Prince Charles aide Michael Fawcett was profiting from the sale of unwanted Royal gifts, claims which he reportedly denied.

Last week St James's Palace announced an inquiry would be undertaken by private secretary Sir Michael Peat. Critics say the inquiry will lack independence, despite the appointment of Edmund Lawson QC to assist Peat.

One St James's Palace source describes the scene in the press office at the height of the revelations as follows: 'Everyone was sitting around and almost crying. We get paralysed by fear sometimes as we don't know what's coming.'

Both palaces' comms staff say reactive PR and rebuttal has taken up most of their time. They say they were taken by surprise by many events and insist their comms strategies have been hampered by the legally-sensitive nature of the claims.

The St James's source says: 'You have to get people at the top thinking about the consequences. The natural instinct (at both palaces) is to postpone any decision - neither palace is better than the other at this.'

The source adds that the fact none of the top press office staff - such as Simon Walker at Buckingham Palace or Colleen Harris at St James's Palace - worked for the Royals during the period when many of the alleged wrong-doings occurred, has made it even more difficult for them to predict the direction stories would take.

The source gives three occasions when, looking back, St James's Palace PR could have been sharper. First, the internal review should have been announced earlier. Second, Peat should have been put up on TV earlier to hammer home the line that there was 'no conspiracy' in the Queen's intervention in the Burrell trial. And third, the involvement of Lawson 'could have been played up more'.

A Buckingham Palace spokesman says they were 'absolutely behind' St James's Palace but that any investigation was 'really for them to handle'.

In respect of the alleged wrongdoings at St James's Palace, the source there says: 'They (Buckingham Palace) don't want to be anywhere near it.

To be honest, if I was in their position I'd say the same thing.'

Simon Lewis, who from 1998 to 2000 served as the Queen's communications secretary, says: 'In that situation one hopes for the day the story is not on the front pages. When that happens, it's an important psychological moment.'

Critics of Royal crisis PR, such as Charles Lankester, MD of crisis consultancy Limehouse Partners, believe the past fortnight's crises were 'visible months in advance'. Lankester says the apparent buck-passing between the palaces should be remedied by merging the press operations, a long-mooted idea.

Mark Bolland, the former PR chief to Prince Charles, who now describes himself as a media consultant to St James's Palace, says he supports a merger of the press offices and believes the past fortnight's events will increase the likelihood of this happening.

The St James's Palace source says early-morning speaker-phone briefings between the two press offices in the past fortnight proved unsatisfactory, and 'almost prohibit action being taken and messages developed'.

Peat's inquiry is expected to report by late-January next year. Royal PROs are keeping their fingers crossed that 'other issues' keep Royal sleaze off the front-pages.

Bolland says: 'Dealing with the Burrell case was like a minefield. There is always a danger you will walk across unexploded bombs. Sir Michael Peat is now leading us on this journey across the minefield.'

The consensus among most former and current Royal PROs is that the recent allegations would be likely to cause Royal opinion ratings to slip. But all stressed that after a few weeks, polls tend to return to an equilibrium in favour of the monarchy. The Royals will be hoping there are no 'unexploded bombs' to come.

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