Leader: Royals must redefine public engagement

PRWeek enjoyed a right royal visit earlier this week. Not the Queen or the Prince of Wales, but more appropriately their respective press secretaries Penny Russell-Smith and Paddy Harverson.

The rare opportunity to hear from the monarchy's media minders was an Editorial Intelligence debate at PRWeek's HQ, and they faced a grilling from a largely republican panel of journalists, including The Independent's Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and The Observer's Mary Riddell. Among the audience were former palace PROs Dickie Arbiter and Charles Anson, and royal watchers such as the BBC's Nicholas Witchell.

The lasting impression was of a monarchy employing a slick communications machine. Russell-Smith – still glowing from the success of the Queen's 80th birthday – talked of exploiting the royal palaces as media venues and embracing digital techniques, from blogs to podcasts. Meanwhile, Harverson, formerly PR supremo at Manchester United, is clearly employing modern brand techniques at Clarence House in a bid to present Prince Charles as an acceptable future head of state. Indeed, the talk of 'transparency' and 'cost-effectiveness' would not have been out of place at a corporate AGM.

Surprisingly the left-wing commentators, while reassuringly spiky, seemed resigned to a continuing monarchy. And they admitted that supposedly anti-establishment hacks were often 'deferential and gullible' when encountering royalty. All of which suggests an easy ride for royal PR staff.

But one can't help thinking that while the palaces have now got the modern communications basics right, they avoid engaging in the core debate about the rationale for, or future role of, the monarchy. As Alibhai-Brown noted, transparency does not equate to active public approval.

Indeed the populace, like the media, seems more acquiescent than supportive, and until the monarchy meets its critics in a real constitutional debate the whole enterprise seems rather reactive and fragile.


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