The Prince of Public Relations Take His Leave of Royal Duties – And He’ll Be Missed by PR Experts
Friday, May 5th, 2017
This Grand Old Duke Has Done The Work of 500 Men When It Comes to Public Relations
WEARY auld Prince Philip has fully earned his retirement from public duties.
The man is a PR legend … whether most people realise it or not.
Controversial? Perhaps. But the Duke of Edinburgh is a case study in not one, but two streams of public relations. The first and most obvious is media relations. Quite simply, the Queen’s husband has been a headline writer’s gift for decades.
Whether you call it gaffe-prone, plain-talking or non-politically correct, the patriarch of the Royal Family has never shied away from the age old secret of garnering media coverage among the rich and famous: Open mouth. Insert foot.
Throughout his time by the Queen’s side, Prince Philip became legendary for his off-colour comments, borderline insults and occasionally ill-tempered remarks.
In fact, even as he retires from public duties at the age of 95, his decision to take it easy has given the media a chance to relive those gaffes – from tabloid The Sun to establishment broadsheet The Telegraph all the way through to upright national broadcaster, the BBC.
However, the numerous controversies he stoked also served to constantly showcase the Queen as a dignified, considered and self-contained powerhouse. All of the qualities she needed to steer the monarchy through some of the biggest challenges it has faced.
But media relations is just one part of the jigsaw puzzle of public relations. There’s a second area of PR where the Duke of Edinburgh has excelled and that’s in, well, relating to the public.
While the subject of the Royal Family, inherited entitlement and the role of the monarchy in the 21st century can be divisive, the question of whether The Queen and her husband actually *work* should be beyond any doubt.
The relentless pace of their public engagement schedule over decades is difficult to absorb and comprehend. They have put in an incredible shift just getting out and meeting the people of the UK, the Commonwealth and the rest of the world.
Just a couple of years ago I watched the nonagenarian Duke of Edinburgh perform a quite astonishing feat of endurance for a man of his age, during a public engagement in Edinburgh. He was opening a newly refurbished building which forms part of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Since the commercial arm of Surgeon’s Hall is a valued client of Holyrood PR, I was invited along to the grand opening of the shiny, new Prince Philip building, with the Duke doing the honours to launch the new venue carrying his name.
To put this in context, I’d describe myself as indifferent about the Royals. Neither pro, nor anti. Yes, they get an awful lot of privilege, but who’d want all the baggage that goes with it? In short, I didn’t really have an opinion about the Queen’s consort and certainly didn’t know what to expect for his visit.
Until that point all I really knew about the Duke was that he was renowned for being short-tempered, gaffe-prone and not terribly PC. I also knew he was really knocking on … not quite as old as the venerable, 500-year-old institution he was visiting. But well into his 90s. That made him at least 10 years older than anyone in my family.
Just thinking about that rather set me back. My oldest relations and in-laws might still have all their marbles, but would any of them be able to travel the length of the country and endure through stiff and formal public engagements? Nae chance.
It was then I looked at the set of stairs the ageing Royal would have to navigate to get to the opening ceremony. Suddenly I suspected this was going to be a short, perfunctory and incredibly tightly-managed affair.
That’s when good old Phil the Greek turned up and made sure I’d never look at the work of the Royals in quite the same light ever again.
Surprise number one was when he bounded up the stairs.
All right ‘bounded’ is a slight exaggeration. But the 30 or 40 steep steps were certainly no great barrier to him. No-one held his arm, there was no creaking or shuffling, or wheezing or complaining. In fact, when he got into the main hall and spotted a raised podium with another three or four steps for him to navigate, he cracked a joke about them – then proceeded to bound up them as well.
Granted, it could just be good genes combined with the fact that this is a man who has lived a life of incredibly entitled privilege every day since his Battenberg mother birthed him in Corfu in 1921. No doubt republicans and anti-monarchists will be pointing out that ordinary Britons paid for the Civil List which has kept Prince Philip in a pampered existence with excellent nutrition and the attention of the best physicians.
But the man was 93 and he still strode up those stairs with purpose, vigour and, dare I say it, a sense of relish. Think about that for a moment. After 70 years of constant engagements he still had a genuine appetite for the job.
Sure, he’s been treated to glittering banquets, colourful parades and met the most fascinating figures of the 20th and 21st centuries. But he’s also had to gladhand his way through every imaginable type of dreary government duties, dull civic events, cookie-cutter fetes, fairs and functions, not to mention endlessly repetitive openings, tours and receptions.
While the Royal opening of the Prince Philip building was an exciting, unusual and out-of-the ordinary event for me and the other 200 or more guests, it was just another day at the office for Phil. A day at the office much like all the days at the office for at least 70 years before. A day at that office despite creaking knees, varicose veins, a weakening bladder and near constant joint aches.
Let that sink in. The man’s not a kick in the arse away from 100 (and if he reaches that landmark, will he get a telegram from his wife – or just eggs on toast and a cup of tea brought to him in bed?).
Yet while most other people of his age would be wrestling with decrepitude, here he was spending hours on his feet, performing demanding formal duties, all the while being required to maintain a sense of Royal decorum and to be constantly good-natured.
Surprise number two was just how engaged the veteran Royal was.
Yes, this was a meet and greet. I just don’t think that anyone present really expected Prince Philip to meet and greet everyone. But that’s exactly what he did.
In doing so, the Grand Old Duke must have departed from Royal Protocol. Certainly, invitations to the august event explained that he would meet some of the attendees. The Buckingham Palace team which organised and coordinated the Duke’s visit even provided guests with basic written guidance on how to react should they be lucky enough to attract his attention.
What nobody predicted was that Prince Philip would make his way around the very large function hall and meet every single person there. Everyone. He made it clear from very early on that he was going to work the entire room.
By which I don’t mean a quick, perfunctory handshake. No, His Highness had a question, a comment and bon mots for everyone in the room. He asked searching and relevant questions then listened carefully to the answers. He cracked jokes, smiled a lot and generally lit up the room.
Some people enjoyed slightly more Royal attention than others. The man standing next to me was sporting an MCC club tie which the Prince immediately recognised, prompting him to flutter the guest’s tie mischievously, while asking all about his connections with Lord’s Cricket Ground and the spiritual home of the sport.
Once again I’d ask you to stop and think about that. This was a man in his 90s, taking the time to work a room packed with hundreds of guests, in a way that would challenge and exhaust even the most accomplished business networker. And he did it all with a ready smile, a word for everyone and without any sign of complaint.
What a total and utter pro. I can’t believe that anyone present left that event without being impressed and even humbled by the sheer effort and charisma of that somewhat stooped old man. Now *that’s* some powerful word of mouth PR right there.
It’s easy to get blinded by the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the Royal Family. During that event (the one and only time I’ve seen the Duke of Edinburgh in action), at first what I saw from the other end of the room was a near mythical figure who looms large in the public consciousness. Essentially I didn’t really see the man. I saw a face which represents the crown and all that it means. An embodiment of centuries of tradition, power and awe.
In fact, it’s not until I was up close that I really appreciated was that, no matter how vital, rich and revered the figure may be, the man standing in front of me was old. Very old indeed.
My newfound respect for Prince Philip in that moment wasn’t simply about his age. It was the realisation that he was still tirelessly performing his royal duty to unexpected level despite his age and all the tribulations that such advanced years bring. It was the dawning realisation that THIS was what he’d been doing for more than 70 years.
Relating to the public (or public relations), unceasingly and seemingly without end for a span of years that is nigh on incomprehensible. So, without a second thought, I’d like to recognise the Duke as a PR guru – and wish him all the very best for his long-overdue retirement.
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Scott Douglas is the co-founder of the multi award-winning Holyrood Partnership, renowned public relations agency in Edinburgh, Scotland.
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