Two remarkable weeks on, here are some initial reflections on a 24-hour period (Thursday 8th to Friday 9th September) which saw a masterful royal public relations strategy ease the transition from the reign of Queen Elizabeth II to that of King Charles III.
At lunchtime on Thursday 8th September, it was announced that Elizabeth II was ‘under medical supervision’ after doctors expressed concern about her health. Members of her family converged on Balmoral to pay their final respects. Most arrived too late, but it gave the media time to ready the public for the bad news.
Royal insiders at the big broadcasters had clearly learnt of Elizabeth II’s death before it was officially announced, with the tone of their reporting steadily shifting and public interest piquing.
The palace’s statement on Elizabeth II’s death came at 6.30pm with the news simultaneously posted on the official royal Twitter account, thus generating maximum publicity and international interest.
The obituary pieces quickly rolled across television channels with presenters and commentators offering their first impressions. Meanwhile, the new king (who became monarch the moment his mother died) issued a public statement on Elizabeth II’s death.
In it he stressed how she was both ‘cherished Sovereign’ and ‘much-loved Mother’. He also drew attention to how her loss would be felt not just in Britain but in the other realms, the Commonwealth and around the world. Thus, the new king helped to re-affirm the boundaries within which Elizabeth II’s legacy would initially be judged: the news stories that followed emphasized the queen’s image as a popular ruler, family woman and global personality.
The king also cast himself as a loving son, referring to the queen as his ‘beloved Mother’, while stressing his personal ‘sadness’. The image of the grieving king drew on an old royal PR tradition designed to evoke public sympathy following a royal death – helpful at times of change.
The king’s message gave the greenlight to the media to begin their reporting on what ‘Charles III’ (now that he had confirmed his new name) would be like as a ruler, something he himself sought to address in his first speech as monarch on Friday evening (see below).
Over the course of Friday, as Operation London Bridge continued to unfold, as tributes poured in from around the world, and as the bouquets of flowers piled up at Buckingham Palace, the activities of Charles III made clear that he was our new monarch.
Since the start of the 20th century, successor monarchs have always played a key part in proceedings immediately after the demise of their predecessors. This is because they need to establish themselves as replacement focal points for national and imperial/Commonwealth unity.
The king’s return journey from Balmoral to London was carefully reported on by news channels. It was made clear to media audiences that Charles III’s duty as monarch required him to meet his Prime Minister, who had three days earlier been invited to form a government by Elizabeth II. Thus, the theme of the monarch’s ‘relentless programme of service’ passed to the new king, who appeared to be picking up where Elizabeth II left off. This was the first public signal that, as monarch, Charles III would seek to follow the example of his mother.
However, before meeting his PM, Charles was seen on foot greeting well-wishers who had assembled outside Buckingham Palace. He shook their hands and made small talk, all the while stressing how he had been ‘dreading’ this moment. This was again powerfully symbolic.
There were concerns before his accession that Charles III might meet with a frosty public reception, given his occasional unpopularity as heir (most notably in the 1990s). It was thus key to choreograph media images of a king being welcomed into his role by ‘popular assent’.
The media celebrated the way these interactions between sovereign and subjects revealed a personable side to the king. He deployed the same tactic during his tour of the Celtic capitals, with scenes of public enthusiasm for ‘our friendly king’ helping to legitimize his accession.
After greeting Liz Truss at Buckingham Palace (an important media moment that reaffirmed Charles III’s new role as head of state through his interaction with the head of government) there came the most direct PR intervention from the king: his first TV address to his people.
The speech was delivered at 6pm to coincide with the start of the evening’s news coverage. In his address, the king emphasized three key themes which gave us an indication of how (for now) he sees his role as British monarch.
First of all, he celebrated his mother’s life with reference to her commitment to ‘duty’ and ‘selfless service’. He also drew on the royal public language that defined his mother’s reign by highlighting how the ‘heavy responsibilities of Sovereignty’ had now passed to him. Charles’ rhetorical emphasis on service thus linked his reign to Elizabeth II’s and invoked an old PR trope (first deployed in the 1930s) which asserts that a monarch’s duty requires self-sacrifice – hence is unenviable. Again, this idea is meant to elicit sympathy (and support) for royalty.
Secondly, the king spoke of how he would uphold the ‘constitutional principles’ enshrined in Britain’s democratic political system noting also that he would disengage from those spheres of personal interest where, as Prince of Wales, he had previously expressed political opinions. Once again, then, the monarch hinted that he would follow his mother’s lead. She was the best example of a constitutional (politically voiceless, non-partisan, uncontentious) monarch the UK has ever seen: a sensible move given Charles’ reputation for ‘meddling’. Furthermore, Charles’ concession that it would ‘no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply’ was another way of conveying self-sacrifice: becoming king meant abnegating his former (opinionated) self.
Finally, the king spoke with affection of his sons and their wives: he was promoting William and Catherine to Prince and Princess of Wales; he would lovingly support Harry and Meghan ‘as they continue to build their lives overseas’. The king thus reimagined his old public image as a doting father to two bereaved sons – an image that had earned him support after Diana’s death and helped with the rehabilitation of his reputation. Once again he was a family man, just like Elizabeth II was a family woman.
Significantly, a largely compliant British media interpreted the new king’s message at face value: few news providers sought to seriously interrogate the nature of royal ‘duty’ or ‘public service’ as embodied either by Elizabeth II or other members of her family. Nor did the media explore the role that royal PR strategies (e.g. the idea of the ‘self-sacrificing sovereign’; the ideas of the ‘loving son’/‘loving father’) have played in generating support for monarchy, while offsetting concerns around royal privilege and social inequality.
I cannot recall a royal speech a) so perfectly calibrated to convey continuity with the past and b) which drew so successfully on the royal language and PR strategies of the last 100 years in order to mobilize positive media coverage and, in turn, an approving public response. This was, then, a royal PR triumph. In 24 hours, the Prince of Wales (a man known for being compassionate but also difficult and demanding) had become King Charles III, a fully-fledged constitutional monarch and, vitally, a vulnerable, human figure with whom one might even sympathize.
Featured image credit: Elizabeth II portrait, Wolfgang Wild. CC.2.0 via Wikimedia Commons