News Analysis: The long road to public approval

The wedding of Charles and Camilla marks the culmination of years of softening the public to the idea. Dan Bloch unravels a fascinating media case study.

When it comes to popularity with the general public, Princess Diana was always going to be a hard act to follow. Similarly, Prince Charles's relationship with the media has long been troubled, made apparent in his overheard remarks last week. Since the 10 February announcement of the wedding of Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, the plans have been dogged by controversy over the Queen's non-attendance, the shift in venue from Windsor Castle to the town's guildhall, and even the legality of the nuptials.

Yet Clarence House seems to be putting on a brave face, pointing out that while there has been no 'vast celebration' over the couple's plans, the public have become more accepting of them. Poll results bear this out.

A February Populus survey for The Times was typical and found that 43 per cent approved of the wedding, up 11 points from June 2004, with approval highest among the DE socio-economic group. Disapproval dropped seven points to 22 per cent.

But polls also show a significant number who are undecided or unconcerned, suggesting that the couple still have a significant PR battle ahead.

Former deputy private secretary to the Prince of Wales, Mark Bolland, presided over a period of change, between 1996 and 2002, remaining as a consultant until late 2003.

'During my time, the main task was trying to stop Camilla being a secret,' he says. 'In 1996, nobody knew anything about her. The relationship was barely publicised. She had been severely demonised.' While previously she had always attempted to retain her privacy, when Bolland joined his staff the Prince set the objectives of ensuring Camilla was no longer hated, was treated with respect, that the couple should be able to do things, such as go on holiday or to the theatre, as normal, and that when the media did find out what they were doing, coverage would not be sensationalist.

Open policy

It involved striking a balance between not wishing to hide from the press and limiting their intrusiveness. The strategy for achieving this was to be 'as open as possible', says Bolland. 'The press office started to answer royal correspondents' questions in a way that had not been done before. In the past they would have simply responded "Who is Camilla Parker Bowles?".'

But amid concerns that the paparazzi would snap them unawares, the Prince decided to break cover in 1999, inviting the world's press to witness them together in public for the first time, at the Ritz hotel. From this point, the pair were constantly in the media for the next couple of months, says Bolland, but interest gradually receded, and pictures of them together were relegated from newspapers' front pages.

'During the time of Bolland there was a very concerted effort to get people to accept Camilla as the Prince's official companion,' says Daily Mirror royal reporter Jane Kerr. 'There were a large number of events where she was at his side. Since Bolland left, they have not been so obvious, but she was by then a permanent fixture. So Bolland's plans have worked, in that they are now getting less attention.'

But former press secretary to the Queen, Dickie Arbiter, says this strategy may have 'slightly backfired'. 'If you try to sell something in a way that is acceptable to the media, it may not be acceptable to the public,' he says. 'People don't like having things forced on them.'

Since Bolland's replacement by former Manchester United PR chief Paddy Harverson in February 2004, royal watchers say the PR strategy has become less proactive and more reactive.

'One of the difficulties recently was whether Camilla would be Queen,' says The Times royal correspondent Alan Hamilton. 'Clarence House seemed at odds with the Lord Chancellor's office. You would have thought that before it all became public, they would have agreed a line.'

Bolland agrees: 'We would always try to anticipate questions and analyse risks. We didn't always get it right, but myself, (Charles's press secretary) Colleen Harris, and (private secretary) Stephen Lamport all knew the risks of having a high profile under the glare of the media. I'm not sure they still do that terribly well.'

Clarence House dismisses these criticisms, saying the issue of whether Camilla would have the title 'Queen', raised in a parliamentary question by Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay, was a 'massive storm in a teacup'.

Shifting media

Clarence House has also shifted its media focus. 'We're devoting more resources towards (promoting) the Prince's work, rather than handling media interest in his private life, which is part of a long-term strategy of focusing more on local newspapers, TV and magazines,' says Harverson.

'Far more people trust TV and local newspapers than national newspapers, and magazine readership is fast growing.'

He says this shift is not at the expense of national media, however, pointing out that the PR team has expanded from seven to nine members in the past six months to achieve a broader spread of coverage. But, according to one national newspaper journalist: 'They feel they can control what goes on TV, whereas they can't with what someone writes. And if Charles wanders around Cumbria, say, a local paper is going to cover it differently from a national, which would be more interested in what he says or does.'

Camilla, now Duchess of Cornwall, does not as yet have dedicated PR advisers, but future counsellors are likely to have a significant task ahead. 'The big question is whether she gets accepted or whether the Royal Family are riding roughshod over the public,' says Daily Mail royal correspondent Richard Kay. 'The answer will be in the numbers turning up to the wedding and the proportion that are supportive.'

Bolland says: 'If the objective - which would be mine - is to give people an appreciation of what genuine value Camilla adds to Charles's public life and the monarchy, part of that process is going to be some greater explanation of her.' So far, the focus has been on 'undemonising' Camilla.

The challenge now is to make her more human.

CAMILLA AND THE MEDIA

- 1997 Becomes patron of the National Osteoporosis Society (NOS), marking the first time she has an independent public role L1999 Photographed in public for the first time with Prince Charles, leaving the Ritz hotel L 2001 First public kiss at 15th birthday celebrations for NOS, at Somerset House

- 2002 First appearance in the royal box at Queen's golden jubilee

- 2005 Wedding date announcement confirms she is to become a permanent fixture in the family.

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