Spin Doctor To Polish The Crown
LONDON — Try ringing Buckingham Palace in London (930-4832) and asking what Queen Elizabeth II likes to eat for breakfast.
The answer to that, and most other questions, will be: "I'm terribly sorry. We don't provide information on such matters."
But the tradition of royal reticence is about to change.
The British monarch, reportedly stunned by an opinion survey revealing widespread and severe criticism of her family, will soon appoint a highly paid spin doctor (aka director of communications) to try to put the monarchy back in touch with the people.
"At last the House of Windsor has decided to do something serious about its public image," says royal-watcher Harold Brooks-Baker, editor of Burke's Peerage. "It's high time."
Throughout her 46-year reign, Queen Elizabeth has made do without a public relations strategy and with a press office that turns journalists' questions politely (and sometimes snootily) aside. The Buckingham Palace press officer seldom meets the monarch and stonewalls most questions from the media.
But sustained attacks on the royal response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, last August, when the queen and her family decided to remain on vacation in Scotland, prompted a rapid rethink.
The queen, reportedly on the advice of Prime Minister Tony Blair, commissioned Mori, a leading pollster, to stage focus groups in several parts of the United Kingdom.
Despite attempts to keep the survey results under wraps, a copy of the findings was leaked Feb. 22 to London's Sunday Times.
Mori, the paper reported, told the queen that her subjects were critical of her family's "remoteness and the rigidity of their upbringing and current lifestyle."
The focus groups, constituting a cross-section of the British public, found the royal family extravagant, wasteful, and lacking in humanity. They also criticized "numerous courtiers and official royal advisers" for offering unsuitable advice to the royals on how to behave. The groups rated Diana, who in her lifetime had been perceived as sympathetic and able to empathize with the poor and needy, "an exception."
The Mori report states: "Much of the criticism is of the antics of the younger royals who are criticized for 'lack of dignity' " while "still expecting deference, financial support, and extended holidays."
The queen herself evoked favorable reactions in the survey, with words such as "trustworthy" and "respected" dominating the findings, but when she read the tough remarks about her family, royal sources say, she acted swiftly.
Last week she called a "royal summit" that included her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh; Prince Charles; Prince Andrew; Princess Anne; and several top advisers.
Buckingham Palace sources later confirmed that the summit decided that the appointment of a royal "media guru" was urgently required. The post will be advertised before Easter, with a salary of as much as 150,000 ($240,000).
Mr. Brooks-Baker, an expert on Europe's royal and noble families, is convinced that the Windsor's failure to have a media strategy until now was "singularly ill-advised."
"One reason why British tabloid newspapers literally invent so many royal stories is that they cannot obtain real information when they ask the palace for it," he says. "The queen has been too locked into traditional ideas about publicity for far too long.
"If ... President Clinton's [image-maker] were to come over to Britain, he could solve the royal family's public relations problems in two minutes. What is needed is an expert, not a bevy of courtiers, many of whom belong to the 18th century," he says.
Janet Daley, an American-born newspaper columnist who has lived in Britain for 30 years, says the death of the princess exposed a serious weak spot in the royal family's armor.
"What was disturbing about its response to the public grief over Diana's death was its apparent failure to grasp that any reciprocity on its part was to be expected," she says.
Ms. Daley adds: "The queen's family seems to embody ... an attitude toward emotion that has become not only unfashionable but actually discredited. Royal attitudes and manners have become estranged from those of the general public."
The Mori report says there was only limited support in the focus groups for abolishing the monarchy, but most of those questioned wanted it to modernize - and listen to public opinion.
This is in line with indications from sources close to Mr. Blair that the prime minister has been playing an active part behind the scenes in trying to persuade the queen of the need for change in the royal family's relationship with the British people.
Blair sees the queen every week for a private audience, the details of which are never published. Brooks-Baker however says Blair has been "right in there" pressing for reform.
So, too, has Prince Charles, who in the last three or four years has had his own professional press officer and is believed to have urged the queen to take seriously the Mori findings.