The royal family's image crisis

Duchess Kate’s ‘disappearance’ and the image of the monarchy

Duchess Kate’s ‘disappearance’ is not just a tabloid sensation. It is a sign of the monarchy’s deepening instability and disastrous communications policy. This topic was commented on by Zofia Bugajna-Kasdepke, founder and president of SEC Newgate CEE, in an interview for Vogue Poland conducted by Anna Konieczyńska.

Are we already facing an image crisis?

Without a doubt! The palace has clearly failed. The publication of the manipulated photo detracts from the stature and dignity of the royal family. The honesty and integrity of the monarchy should never be questioned. Meanwhile, there is now a feverish search for an ’emergency exit’ and an attempt to protect the ‘Royal Family’ brand.

What values is the brand based on?

The royal image is conservative, respectful, considerate and humble, yet strong. The whole PR strategy of the royal family and a kind of promise of the brand was created by Elizabeth II and was based on the concept of ‘a life of service’. As the head of a constitutional monarchy, she spoke more often of ‘the people with the Queen’ than of ‘the Queen with the people’ and this narrative became the foundation of the royals’ communication. In this sense, it was the subjects who ruled the Queen, because emotionally the monarchy began to be ‘owned’ by the British people.

If we were to compare the monarchy to a large company, we would distinguish a number of characteristics that permanently form this corporate brand. These characteristics are referred to as the five R’s. The monarch must be ‘royal’, i.e. have some specific legal status given by law, history, the state. He or she must also be ‘regal’, i.e. behave in a manner worthy of a monarch, and therefore take part in ceremonies, rituals, celebrations. But this is not enough. The royal family should remain ‘relevant’, i.e. understand what society needs at the moment and therefore be important to the country. The fourth category is ‘respect’ – not just reverence, but also the respect of the subjects. And the last and equally important element is to be ‘responsive’, i.e. to react and adapt to change.

The younger generation – Prince William and Duchess Kate – are responsible for the latter element.

Their role cannot be overestimated, as the value of the monarchy declined after Charles III took the throne. The son is less popular than his mother, Elizabeth II. Charles III represents traditional, conservative, heritage values. Meanwhile, William and especially Kate represent a breath of fresh air, a new opening.

How does Kate present herself in public?

Kate functions in public life in a virtually visual-only way. She rarely makes any speeches. She simply is. By being photographed, she attests to the permanence of the monarchy with herself, her body, her life. When she gives to charity, the result is her sessions with children or veterans. She smiles, she is distinguished, she looks impeccable. When it comes to her views, she remains transparent – no one really knows what Kate thinks. In Poland this sounds like an accusation, meanwhile, when it comes to the future queen, it is a real virtue. And since the ‘Kate brand’ has been built on the visual side, the problems begin when the veracity of this image is undermined.

And the British already lack confidence.

“Unreliable leadership” is what The Cut calls it. The country has had four prime ministers since 2016, and the current Rishi Sunak doesn’t have the best record either. He is the one who said that part of the country’s wellbeing and the direction it is heading is the calmness in the royal house.

After Brexit, Britain seems lost. The British people have this sense that their previously stable country is starting to become unstable. The foundation for continuity has always been the royal family, and today even it is proving to be failing. The pressure on the Windsors is mounting: while maintaining the dignity of an institution a thousand years old, they are expected to be ‘normal’, inspire sympathy and share their lives on social media. The days of royal dignity are giving way to the need for digital celebrities.

But the Kardashians are referred to as ‘America’s royal family’….

Public relations is all about consistency of message. We know what to expect from the Kardashians. And from the royal family? We know what they are supposed to be like, but are they really like that? We expect prudence, humility, strength and, perhaps above all, honesty. This seemingly trivial photo retouching gaffe deepens the crisis of confidence in the monarchy.

How could such a gaffe even happen?

It is difficult to understand. In the companies I work for, corporate materials involving the CEO or chairman are approved by several people. So I can imagine what the procedures are for handling the royal family.

Opinion-forming website Politico points out that the royal family’s recent PR disaster is due to a growing tendency in the British establishment – among both the royal family and politicians – to maintain tight control over their public image by taking photos of themselves or hiring private photographers to publish only carefully selected images.

It used to be that the royal family had their own court or accredited photographers who, under a system known as the Royal Rota, covered events at the royal court and took official portraits. Kate and William broke with this tradition and decided to take matters into their own hands. As an amateur photographer herself, Kate wanted to do family portraits because it creates a more intimate atmosphere, it doesn’t stress the children and everyone feels safe.

As long as the photos taken by Kate gained likes, everything was fine. Worse if a scandal erupted after publication.

The Windsors gained 100 per cent control of the message. And suddenly the message turned out to be false. This manipulation has shaken faith in the integrity of the royal family. And it’s not just gossip, after all, but the reactions of reputable agencies such as the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. Removing the Duchess’s photo from circulation sent Kensington Palace a serious message of principle and a reminder that the creation of photos by big agency photographers lent them journalistic credibility, so important now in the age of AI and deep fake.

But the picture itself isn’t all – Kate hasn’t shown herself in public for almost three months.

Her disappearance is not just a tabloid sensation. It is a sign of the monarchy’s deepening instability and disastrous communications policy. The scandal caused by the photo was preceded by a crisis over the mismanagement of access to information about an important person in the state. Conspiracy theories were given voice. Why doesn’t Kate want to show herself in the real photo? What if the previous photographs were also retouched? Or has the Duchess disappeared for a long time? Of course, issues of health or mental health are very sensitive. It’s hard to talk about it, hard to make a statement about it, hard to invade privacy. But surely a certain continuity has been broken, which is a value in the case of the royal family. Showing up in public is not a privilege but a duty for Kate. By showing up, members of the royal family prove that they are serving their country, their nation, their subjects. Just as Queen Elizabeth II did – no matter what, you must fulfil your duty.

One of her cardinal rules was also ‘don’t explain yourself’, and Kate issued a statement saying that she was ‘fiddling with the photo processing’.

Duchess Kate’s comment is fuelling conspiracy theories because it sets a precedent. To give the scale away, I’ll say that explanations were waited for even when false information about Elizabeth II’s death appeared in the media. An ironclad rule was broken, and on top of that Kate’s explanation does not seem convincing. “Photoshop fun of an amateur photographer” – this does not sound serious. After all, every such portrait is approved by a staff of advisors. More question marks arise above all about the meaning of this mystification.

The royal family’s motto is “to believe, you must see”. The subjects, seeing the royal family, believe that they are fulfilling their duties correctly. And suddenly not one, but two key figures in the royal family have withdrawn from official duties. All that is known about Charles III is that he has cancer. What is actually wrong with him? How does he feel? This we do not know. How are the British people supposed to react when the second most important person in the monarchy for them after the king – according to the popularity ratings – also disappears. Everyone has a right to intimacy, but the royal family are, after all, bound by different rules than the average Smith. The UK is facing a debate about the boundaries of access to health information, probably depending on what is behind the mystery of the King’s illness and the disappearance of the Princess of Wales.

Is this mistake undermining the royal family’s ratings?

The standards of perfection we have for public figures, celebrities or politicians are even higher for members of the royal family. They are expected to promote the aspirations and ideals of the nation as a whole.

There is more trouble with this, however, as Generation Z is increasingly questioning the point of the monarchy anyway. In a survey commissioned by the BBC in April 2023, i.e. just before the coronation of Charles III, only 32 per cent of 18-24 year olds were in favour of the royal family. The younger generation simply does not buy into the Windsors.

But the monarchy is still earning its keep.

It does, although less and less. According to a report by consultancy Brand Finance, the royals generate huge profits that go to the Treasury. Counting income from tourism, they bring in £1.8bn a year to the UK, or £8.5 per citizen. Seemingly a good thing, but a huge cause for concern is that the benefits generated by the royal family for the British economy are significantly lower than in the past, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

Research by tourism agency Visit Britain shows that 60 per cent of visitors to the UK see sites associated with the royal family. However, the question being openly raised in the world’s serious media today is whether the main draw for tourists is still the reigning royal family or simply the royal sights. The introduction of such themes into public discourse must worry monarchists.

Will the scandal make the brand worth less?

Firstly, with a creature as specific as the British royal family, it is necessary to talk about lengthy processes; secondly, this is where you really fall off a high horse.

According to some estimates, the capital value of the British monarchy as a company is £67.5 billion. Many institutions have a royal title, and this adds to their prestige, e.g. the Royal Opera House, the Royal College of Art, the Royal Ascot Races. But the royal family is not only about ‘soft power’, but also about specific products. Eight hundred products can carry the Royal Warrant of Appointment quality mark, i.e. use the royal coat of arms. Such a product is considered ‘worthy of the royal family’. If the brand that the Windsors are building weakens, these products also lose their rank.

The royal family has been eroding over the past few years – the megxit, the scandal caused by Prince Andrew, the death of Prince Philip and then Elizabeth II.

Will Charles III be the last British monarch? Unlikely. Even at the time of his coronation, the king was already faced with the difficult task of adapting the monarchy to new times and, as one expert on the royal family expressed it, ‘making it relevant to a new and sceptical audience in a rapidly changing social and political landscape’. The Islands are seeing the rise of republicanism, and the fact that the most well-liked members of the royal family – Duchess Kate and King Charles III – are disappearing certainly does not help.

What can the royal family do now? Will it make a statement about Kate?

The institution of the monarchy will always depend on public support. That is why a good strategy and choosing the right path is so important here. It has to be a qualitative action. The British people need to see the Duchess.

Maybe there will be a statement about her health, maybe there will be a new portrait of Kate with her children (this time taken by a well-known photographer), maybe, for example, the BBC will interview the Duchess? It all depends on the real reasons for her public absence.

What if Kate doesn’t want to return? If she wants to remove herself into the shadows? Or walk away, like Harry and Meghan?

That would be a real earthquake. She is a key player in the royal family. The subjects adore her. Beautiful, smiling, dedicated to royal duties. It could be a crisis on the scale of the one the monarchy went through after Lady Di’s death. Who would replace the Princess of Wales? Especially as there is no spare – Harry and Meghan no longer function in this world. There is no second row.

Is there a chance to build an image in a different way?

Many countries are reinventing themselves. South Korea has opted for Hallyu (Korean Wave), i.e. music, films and TV series as well as cuisine, and we see this cultural colonisation even in Poland. Whoever is not convinced by k-pop festivals numbering in the thousands should look back to “Parasite” or “Squid Game”. This strategy works.

But New Zealand, for example, has already decided to build its country brand on the concept of 100% Pure New Zealand – everything associated with New Zealand is pure, organic, sustainable. New Zealand is to be associated with a pristine paradise.

Estonia, for example, a tiny country that has become a digital superpower, has a good idea of itself too.

And what is the UK today? We don’t know. It has been 30 years since the concept of Cool Britannia, promoted by Tony Blair in the 1990s. Brexit has caused great reputational damage. And now the whole concept of tradition, of nobility, of honour as represented by the royals is tottering in the foundations.

Can Britain cope without the royal family?

The UK has considerable ‘soft power’ through institutions such as the BBC and the British Council, its excellent universities, scientists and artists. The latest Global Soft Power Index survey showed that the UK is second only to the United States and is today the second best country in the world in this area. However, it also ‘owes’ its recent high score to the change in the throne, with coverage of Elizabeth II’s funeral and Charles III’s coronation reminding the world of Britain’s greatest strengths. The royal family is building continuity with the past and recalling a time when Britain ruled a fifth of the globe. And it expresses the myth of British exceptionalism, power and importance.

Britain today is not at all ready to be a country without royals, there is no alternative strategy for this. The royal family gives the nation an identity, in marketing we call this ‘brand heritage’. Tradition, constancy, immutability, dignity, honour and pride.

If the monarchy were to be stripped of it today, it would be a bit like depriving Poland of Krakow, Zakopane and Gdansk put together.

Zofia Bugajna-Kasdepke
Woman to Watch in 2022 on the Forbes Women Power Rising List (Poland). Heroine of the "Women of Success" series in the Vogue Poland magazine.
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