Prince Charles: Comeback King?

A year after his painfully public separation, Britain's king-in-waiting focuses on social and environmental issues to improve his image

PRINCE Charles has launched a campaign to restore his credibility as Britain's ``king-in-waiting.''

A year after the collapse of his marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales, amid scandal and acrimony, the heir to the throne has worked with a cabinet of hand-picked advisers to devise an action plan for improving his public image. It will concentrate on social and environmental issues.

Charles has broken royal precedent by hiring a full-time public relations adviser, and the word is going out that the prince is determined to be a successful monarch when his mother, Elizabeth II, ceases to be queen.

Sources close to the royal family say Charles hopes to capitalize on his estranged wife's decision late last year to avoid the media limelight as much as possible. But he also wants to be accepted in his own right as a champion of improving the lifestyle of the people he eventually hopes to reign over.

There are doubts about the prince's ability to spread his ideas in language that ordinary people can understand.

``He has been so rigorously trained in the arts of kingship that he does not know how to bend,'' commented a writer in London's Sunday Times. ``The man who longs to reach out and touch his people remains as remote from them as a Highland peak in winter.''

Charles can appear awkward in public and sometimes uses technical language. People who have watched him perform say he can be charming in private conversation, but appears stiff and formal on the rostrum.

In touch with people

The cutting edge of his comeback campaign is a set of carefully planned initiatives aimed at keeping him in the public eye and highlighting his interest in matters affecting the lives of ordinary people.

This month saw the publication of the first issue of Perspectives on Architecture, a glossy magazine funded by the prince. According to its editor, the magazine is aimed at stirring debate about building design, town planning, and highway development.

An article by Charles in the magazine argues that buildings should grow ``organically'' out of the landscape.

``The world we are creating for our children should be less ugly and less ecologically damaged than the world which my generation inherited,'' he wrote.

To hammer home his concern for the conditions in which people live, the prince has appointed himself patron of Poundbury, a new town of high-quality homes being built in Dorset, southwest England.

Prince Charles insists that all materials and construction methods in Poundbury should be in harmony with the area's existing buildings. He favors high-tech building techniques so long as they suit the environment in which they are used and preserve the human scale of the new town.

The prince's views on architecture have often made him a center of argument within the profession.

Some years ago he attacked a plan to extend London's National Gallery by adding what he said would be ``a giant carbuncle'' to the existing building. The plan was scrapped.

The prince is also making a strong bid to gain the ear of British business leaders. One of his key projects is Business in the Community, an association of more than 500 companies.

He has written to all its members, spelling out his plans for trying to ensure that the environment is not disfigured by unchecked commercial exploitation.

He intends to make a series of well-publicized speeches drawing attention to the harm already done by unplanned development in many parts of Britain.

Harold Brookes-Baker, editor of Burke's Peerage and an expert on the royal family, calls the king's unprecedented hiring of a public relations adviser ``a vital departure.

``Instead of trying to combat unfavorable popularity when it arises, Charles is keen to seize and hold the initiative,'' Mr. Brookes-Baker says. ``He has learned the lesson that in the modern age, public figures cannot afford to let the news agenda be dictated by the media.''

Alan Percival, his media adviser, has arranged for the prince to appear in a special television profile to be broadcast in July by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The prince has already given interviews for the program, and BBC sources say he will speak frankly for the first time about his marital problems.

But he also will use the opportunity to spell out his views on what can be done to improve the quality of people's lives.

The BBC source says the prince's views on social issues are radical and are likely to stir controversy.

Charles will be treading on delicate ground, as members of Britain's royal family are not allowed to dabble in political matters.

Waning interest in Diana

The success of his bid to recover the respect of British people will depend on the amount of favorable attention Diana receives from press and television while her husband sets about projecting himself in the media, and on his own skills as a communicator.

Brookes-Baker thinks it is likely that the Princess of Wales will steadily lose the sympathy and support of the mass media. ``The same people who made her into an international star may well turn against her,'' he says.

There has been a sharp drop in the amount of coverage given to the princess's activities. She spends much of her time with the couple's two sons.

This month she was criticized in the media for illegally parking her car outside a restaurant and asking police not to give her a ticket - the kind of incident that would have gone unreported in the heyday of her popularity.

Some commentators believe the prince may also suffer in comparison with his mother. Elizabeth, says Anthony Sampson, author of ``The Essential Anatomy of Britain,'' ``has developed her style through intensive self-discipline.'' He adds: ``The queen's own success creates big problems for her successor.''

Members of the prince's cabinet are said to have warned him that as well as restoring his own image, he must attempt to improve the image of the monarchy itself, which has been blemished by scandals in the royal family.

Recent public opinion polls have suggested that small but significant numbers of people would prefer Britain to be a republic.

A Gallup poll just published asked people who they would like to have as president if the monarchy were abolished. It cannot have delighted Charles to learn that one in three of those questioned said they would like his sister, Princess Anne, to be president.

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