The royal family’s response to the death of Princess Diana in 1997 sparked a gradual and largely successful change in its image management, but recent crises have renewed questions about this modernization effort.
The death of the Princess of Wales in a car accident sparked an outpouring of national grief with which members of the royal family, including Queen Elizabeth II and her son Prince Charles, initially seemed at odds.
It was finally recognized that missteps had been made and the family needed to move on from a damaging decade of divorces, family feuds and scandals that had rocked their public reputations.
A quarter of a century later, the monarchy now has a much more nimble PR operation, adept at social media and quick to respond while still being able to stage big events like June’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations with plumb.
However, recent controversies – including Prince Andrew’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein, and Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle stepping down from frontline royal duties – have cast doubts on the remodel.
“Diana’s death is that whirlwind moment, which forces the monarchy to reorient its public image, to adopt a more modern and expressive celebrity image as a means of appealing to the public,” said royal historian Ed Owens. Noting that “this story lives on through her sons”, he sees particular danger in Harry’s apparent estrangement, the Queen’s recent handling of the impending reign of Andrew and his heir Charles.
“I think there are tough times ahead,” Owens predicted.
Immediately after Diana’s death, the Queen and Charles, whose divorce from Diana had been finalized the previous year, remained at Balmoral Castle, their remote Scottish residence, making no public statement.
Fueled by other missteps, a media narrative took hold that the family was disconnected at a time of national significance.
Royal commentators disagree on the correctness of this criticism, noting that the family’s priorities were to support William and Harry in the face of the sudden loss of their mother and to organize a funeral service.
Nevertheless, Buckingham Palace’s press operation was gradually revamped, with the arrival of more PR-savvy people.
Robert Hardman, author of Queen of Our Times: The Life of Elizabeth II, said it was a measured ‘evolution’ as the 24-hour news cycle intensified and social media arrived . “The monarchy is not like a cereal brand, it does not relaunch,” he warned. “It’s changing slowly, imperceptibly, but firmly for a reason. [and] there was definitely a feeling over those years that things had to change. But you don’t rip all of a sudden.
The change offered a more “human” image of the Queen, who had been reported to be more concerned with her dogs and horses than her subjects. Charles, mocked as haughty and stiff, also underwent an expansive image makeover.
William and Harry played key roles, emerging as Diana-style “princes of sentiment” backed by their father, Owens said.
Hardman said today, instead of a past Palace strategy to “keep your head down and see how it goes”, he responds quickly – and confidently – to controversies.
He pointed to his deftly deployed line last year that ‘recollections may vary’ following Meghan and Harry’s sensational claims that she faced racism within the family. But for other royal watchers, the couple’s departure to America in 2020 requires more than damage-limiting PR, with Harry leaving “a huge hole” in the institution, Owens said.
Meanwhile, the Queen’s response to the scandal that engulfed Andrew – who is said to be her favorite son – echoes the mistakes of the Diana era, with Owens calling it a 96-year-old “big mistake” of recent times. decades.
“Andrew’s debacle would suggest the Queen may not have learned from the late 1990s as well as she could have,” Owens said. “She should have been more responsive to public opinion by keeping Andrew out.”