The fact that in her public role Sophie Rhys-Jones is the Countess of Wessex, while in her private life she is (or was) chairman of a public relations company tells you all you need to know about the parallel world that our royals occupy. Most of us would consider the day job to be what we do with a commercial enterprise, while family life is the private bit.
This paradox must be at the heart of why the royal family is such an impossible institution in the modern world, one in which the new aristocracy comprises self-made billionaires, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, rather than hereditary dandies. It may also be why business people, social commentators and the royals themselves abandon all reason when the News of the World comes up with the taped indiscretions of a posh working girl, which amount to little more than the mildly Conservative witterings of her milieu.
I have never heard such hypocritical pap – to borrow a word from the Countess’s lexicon – about the way in which business of this kind is conducted than in the days since Rhys-Jones unwittingly revealed to the world that Tony Blair is presidential and that William Hague is very clever, but has a silly voice.
One of the biggest nonsenses we’ve had to endure is the po-faced declamation from the PR industry that PR isn’t about contacts and using them. Roger Haywood, chairman of the PR Standards Council, was at it most recently on Radio 4’s Today programme. His aired view was that professional PR was about writing communications strategies and certainly not about exploiting one’s contacts.
There is, of course, an alternative view and it’s this: you’re completely wrong, Roger. But he is required, as is much of the communications industry, to be firmly on-message about how PR is all about a top strategic management discipline. Anyone unversed in the ways in which companies use PR would draw the conclusion that it is populated entirely by suits with MBAs from places such as Harvard, proffering market analysis and strategic solutions.
No, it isn’t. There are growing numbers of educated business people in PR as the management function for communications has grown more rarefied. But the truth – occasionally dealt in by even PR professionals – is that the majority of PR operators supply quick solutions to corporate challenges. They identify key people, within the networks in which they operate, who will have an influence on that final solution.
These individuals may belong to the media, or to politics, or to the regulatory framework. But it is no use denying that what companies demand are professionals who know their way around the spheres in which they operate and in which they can exercise some influence, not academics with laptops. Client companies have those in spades on the home team, so hardly need to hire clones from the outside.
This is not to say that PR has to subside into cash-for-questions, brown envelopes and a world in which journalists and/or ministers are compromised. The opposite of a company strategist is not Ian Greer or Derek Draper. But so long as the PR trade continues to deny that it’s about the effective, street-wise tactical implementation of clients’ messages, as well as high-flown corporate strategy, then it is in psychological denial. And, actually, as a business resource it sells itself short.
I suspect that the Countess of Wessex is a little light on rat-like cunning at the street-level and that is, perhaps, to her credit, given that the role of a British prince’s consort is to be a “nice girl”. But another piece of hypocrisy to emerge from this affair is the assumption that UK and foreign business benefits in some unidentified way from a royal connection.
Again, an alternative view: no, it doesn’t. There is a conspiracy on the part of the media at the moment, to adopt the delusion that the Countess of Wessex – and, by association, the royal family – offer an incomparable cachet to the business world. They don’t. But the media have to pretend that they do, otherwise the juice of scandal evaporates.
Royal connections are not good for business – the royals know nothing about commerce, particularly the younger ones. You might as well suggest that Bill Gates’ grand-children are useful commercial contacts. The commercial efforts of the Earl of Wessex in independent television production are all the proof needed to show that vast inherited wealth and privilege are unlikely to create a commercial animal.
I would go further and say that royal associations become an active liability. Not just because they are liable to say or do something stupid, nor because of the ludicrous security costs that accompany them, but because they damage our commercial image.
Even arch-monarchist Tony Blair saw the sense in scrapping the royal yacht. The post-imperial image of patronage and privilege which Britannia purveyed did us no credit latterly as a modern trading nation, other than with a few local snobs taken in by theme-park Olde England.
So let’s stop kidding ourselves. Public relations is about networking and the royals aren’t. If we accept that, both parties can get on with what they’re good at. In the case of PR, making things happen. And, in the case of the royals, doing nothing.
George Pitcher is a partner of issue management consultancy Luther Pendragon