Inside the PR operation to boost Camilla’s popularity before she becomes queen consort
If you have followed royal news for long enough you’ll be more than familiar with the unofficial tradition of marking Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall’s birthday on 17 July with long, glowing features detailing how she has turned around her unpopularity to become hugely loved by the nation.
Peppered with jolly anecdotes about her friendly interactions with royal photographers and her “sharp wit”, the articles are often so positive they read like advertorials.
For royal correspondents, the depictions aren’t far from true. Camilla’s eagerness to engage with and win over the press has made her a favourite member of the Royal Family for many to cover. I’ve certainly enjoyed engagements with her, too.
But outside of the bubble of the royal press, and away from staunch royalists, you’ll find a different story. Talk to straight-talking Brits and you’ll find the sentiment is mostly uninterested or turned off. Recent polls revealed that only 14% of Britons favour Prince Charles’ wife becoming queen consort.
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While time has certainly helped move Camilla’s story on to what is now a life of service and royal duty, the story of her illicit affair with Prince Charles while Diana battled mental health demons during a miserable marriage still lingers for many.
And it’s not as much of a generational thing as one might think. A scroll through royal TikTok shows that amongst younger Millennials and Gen-Z, feelings aren’t much different. Videos comparing Camilla’s life, fashion and legacy to that of Diana’s carry millions of views, all with overwhelming support for the late Princess of Wales.
Of course, the popularity of The Crown hasn’t helped. Its depiction of Parker-Bowles as a chain-smoking adulteress and ongoing focus on Diana’s “three of us in this marriage” has reintroduced a story during which many followers weren't even alive. There’s another season of it coming later this year.
While usually unsympathetic when it comes to the struggles of Royal Family members, it was actually the British tabloid press that rushed to defend the Duchess of Cornwall during the Netflix show’s latest release.
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That stark difference between press and public opinion is the result of a carefully orchestrated, behind-the-scenes PR push. Members of the Royal Family having their own go-to media allies is nothing new, but Camilla has put in more effort than any other when it comes to winning over the influential British press – even if it has meant keeping some of them extremely close.
Media figures and outlets that have disrupted the lives of many other royals, from Diana and Prince Harry to even herself, have become allies of the duchess, including her close friendship with Piers Morgan and regular cooperative efforts with the Daily Mail.
As former BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt put it best, "Camilla has been canny. She’s kept the media close and the Daily Mail even closer.” Words that seem even more apt now that she and Prince Charles have hired an editor from the tabloid to head up their media relations.
It is work that has been a long time in the making. “Operation PB” of the early noughties, which was led by the same man who turned David Beckham from a hate figure to a national hero, Paddy Harverson, was the first campaign to help Camilla shed her image in the press as Charles’ mistress and soften the nation’s negative feelings towards her.
Their PR efforts were followed by a low-key 2005 wedding and hard work, with Camilla choosing to build an impressive royal resume. Over the years she has gone far beyond the “listen and learn” approach to charity adopted by some other royals and had a significant and positive impact on causes such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and literacy.
Earlier this year saw Camilla's biggest boost to date when the Queen publicly expressed her wish that the duchess be known as queen consort when Charles takes the throne – a title Clarence House officials had previously assured the public she would never use.
As she marks her 75th birthday this week, a final PR push before potentially facing the throne alongside Charles is now in full swing, with a major British Vogue photo shoot, a primetime all-access documentary on 13 July, and even a show of support from the Duchess of Cambridge, who photographed her step mother-in-law for Country Life magazine.
New polling data this week shows that Camilla is now number eight on the list of most popular royals. Whether it’s enough to help her truly sway the majority opinion of the British public and beyond, remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure, she’s tried her damnedest.