The resignation of Jane Atkinson from her position as public relations adviser by Appointment to HRH Diana, (retired) Princess of Wales, was enormously heartening for all those who fear the dark, manipulative powers of the spin doctors.
Miss Atkinson’s departure was proof glorious that a pig in a poke remains a pig even when it is a princess. None of us can be entirely sure what Jane was supposed to do in her capacity as press aide to the Queen of Hearts. But it is safe to assume that the tenant of Kensington Palace believed that her image would be somehow contrived to match her own fond imaginings of it. In other words, the media, and in turn the public, would come to see Diana through her own eyes: a blend of saintly compassion, wronged woman, society beauty, and, most importantly, a focus of universal adoration to rival the alternative, outmoded claims of the House of Windsor.
In an earlier career Miss Atkinson had apparently won the admiration of her peers for the dogged spirit with which she persuaded trade magazines to publicise the Durabeam, a tiny flip-top torch made by her client Duracell. “She really worked at it,” a former colleague recalls. “She had incredible tenacity and loads of charm. She really put herself about.”
Perhaps it was her early success with the tiny torch that persuaded Miss Atkinson to believe both in her own invincible powers and those of public relations. For the only explanation for her accepting the post of media adviser to the Princess was that she was suffering from a form of severe self-delusion.
No one as apparently shrewd as she would, compos mentis, have credited public relations with the kind of truly miraculous properties the Princess requires of it. For the truth is a small, flip-top torch acquires a reputation for being small, flip-top and a torch because that is what it is. All public relations can do for its image is to put the word about, preferably with grim tenacity and oodles of charm.
A princess, who is regarded by some as not really human at all but as a kind of saintly effulgence endowed with healing properties emanating from an essential inner goodness, might be forgiven for wishing that this view of her be made universal. But the first duty of a sound public relations adviser is to indicate – discreetly of course – that an image, like a coin, has a reverse and an obverse. And for every one of those who see the Princess as a blend of feminine allure and divine grace there are others who see her as certifiably loopy.
When news of Miss Atkinson’s appointment was first announced, this column presumptuously advised her on the correct approach to her new task. “She must tell the Queen of Hearts to confine herself to modest, self-effacing charitable works and to desist from picking up gorgeous hunks at her keep-fit club; if Diana feels compelled to minister to the sick in the small hours, she must strive to do so by stealth and without a baseball cap; she must surrender her mobile phone; she must forego the comforts of colonic irrigation, soothsaying, necromancy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, and appearances on Panorama; in short, to be the apple of the public eye she should spend much less time in it.”
None of that, of course, was remotely possible. Diana’s image as a self-obsessed, manipulative, half-crazy publicity freak was entirely of her own making and, more to the point, was not merely image but substance too.
And so Miss Atkinson embarked on her fateful voyage, doomed, like the Ancient Mariner, from the outset, the huge ego of her client hung about her neck like an albatross.
But short and tragic though the trip was, it proved instructive and diverting for the onlooker. At first things went well. According to the Daily Mail, “Jane’s infectious and attractive openness was a breath of fresh air.”
Then Diana nipped off to Spain on a private visit, and the well-meaning Jane told the press where her client had gone. That was blunder number one: telling the truth. Such was the transgression, the saintly Diana became convinced that she had engaged a dodgy doctor of spin.
From then on, it was squalls all the way. The Princess noticed that Jane was dressing like her, wearing sling-backs and a blazer. The Princess didn’t like that. The Princess noticed that Jane kissed journalists on both cheeks. The Princess stamped her foot. The Princess noted that her PR had attended the 40th birthday party of a tabloid editor. The Princess stamped her other foot. Nor was that all. Criticised for her goo-goo eyed appearance in the operating theatre and for her decision as Queen of Hearts to dump 100 charities as if they were a useless ballast, the Princess screamed and screamed. And Jane got the blame.
The rest of us, however, were winners. For if there is one lesson to be drawn from the comical zig-zag voyage of Jane Atkinson, it is that PR is a bubble. Big, shiny and without visible means of support, it looks impressive until the moment it collides with the truth, when it promptly bursts covering all concerned in damp disappointment.