In many ways, the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton is a story that writes itself. The groom: a future king, whose mother’s life ended in tragedy, but only after her own marriage provided years of salacious tabloid fodder. The bride: a brown-haired commoner with a down-to-Earth reputation—one that promises to keep the high-profile union anchored firmly in reality, or as close as you can get in the rarefied world of British royalty.
Even so, the monarchy isn’t taking any chances. With the scandals involving Prince Charles and Diana, princess of Wales still fresh in people’s minds, the royal family has spotted a rare opportunity in William and Kate’s walk down the aisle to reinvigorate a tarnished royal brand that contributes not only to Britain’s global prestige, but an estimated $800 million annually to the national economy.
Buckingham Palace has gone to great lengths to make sure the feel-good nature of the upcoming wedding is experienced by as many people as possible—and they’re relying heavily on the latest in digital technology to do it. In addition to being televised, the royal wedding is expected to be streamed live on the Web. The happy couple have also used Twitter to release details about the big day, including news of the engagement itself, while an official royal wedding album will be available “almost instantly” on iTunes, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity. The entire package is being wrapped together with a dedicated website that was set up with the help of no less than Google. “The buzz value on this wedding is global and huge,” says Alan Middleton, a professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business, who grew up in Britain (but bears no relation to the bride). “And the palace is all over it.”
The modern monarchy has a history of using the latest communication technologies to further its public relations aims. In 1953, the Queen wanted her coronation widely televised, marking the first time in British history that a major royal event—from the swelling crowds that lined the procession route to the solemn ceremony inside the abbey—was viewed live by tens of millions of people in Britain and parts of Europe (part of King George VI’s was also broadcast in 1937, but it only reached about 10,000 people). North American audiences only had to wait a few more hours until RAF Canberra jet bombers sped high over the Atlantic, delivering kinescope recordings of the day’s pomp and circumstance to local networks. In the end, more than 200 million people watched the historic proceedings, helping to boost the image of the monarchy even as its actual importance continued to wane.
Now, as then, the royal family often behaves exactly like a corporation with a product to sell. How else to explain William and Kate’s recent pre-wedding tour—those in the corporate world might refer to it as a marketing “road show”—of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where they participated in a series of speaking engagements and other public events before giddy crowds?
It’s also telling that the royal family turns to some of the same places as companies do when looking for public relations help. For example, a British consulting firm called Bang Communications Ltd., which specializes in “public sector branding, corporate and digital communications,” was brought in to work on the relaunch of the monarchy’s official website in 2009. A Bang representative declined to speak with Maclean’s about the firm’s special client, but the unveiling of the new royal site was a suitably splashy PR affair. The Queen herself flipped the “on” switch, and Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist who is considered the inventor of the World Wide Web, was on hand to talk to journalists even though he didn’t appear to have any actual involvement with the project. As for the site itself, which receives roughly 250,000 visitors a month, it has a surprisingly clean, modern look despite the stuffy subject matter, ranging from official residences to royal pets.
These days, though, there’s more to being a techno-savvy monarch than just staking out a spot on the Internet for you and your corgis. Just as corporations ranging from General Mills to General Motors have incorporated social media tools into their marketing strategies, the royal family has also ventured into the Web 2.0 world, albeit somewhat cautiously. The royal household worked with Google to launch a Royal Channel on YouTube in 2007, recording 10.6 million video views over the last four years. In 2009, a Twitter account was added, followed by Facebook and Flickr accounts in 2010.
Of course, it’s not like the royals are uploading videos to YouTube and banging out tweets on their mobile devices (although there are persistent rumours the Queen owns a BlackBerry). “On a daily basis, it’s very much run by staff,” says a spokesperson for the official royal Web team, which consists of one part-time and two full-time employees at Buckingham Palace, another two at Clarence House (the official residence of the Prince of Wales, his wife Camilla, duchess of Cornwall, Prince William and Prince Harry), and one more employee who works with the Royal Collection, the art collection of the British royal family. “But the Queen is obviously consulted before any big initiative is launched.”
In anticipation of intense public interest surrounding the upcoming royal wedding, the royal household approached Google and consulting firm Accenture to help create a dedicated website for the event. It has so far been crammed with details about William and Kate’s pre-wedding tour, information on how to make a charitable donation as gift to the bride and groom, and the status of the flower beds near Buckingham Palace. It’s also expected that the site, powered by Google’s App Engine, will live stream the wedding to a large global audience. “It’s a great way to run apps quickly, more securely, and at a scale which makes it ideal for such an important international occasion,” says Wendy Rozeluk, a spokesperson for the search giant. “The site will be regularly updated by St. James’s Palace in the run-up to the wedding day.” A spokesperson for Accenture did not return a call seeking comment.
All of these tools give the royal family more ways to reach the public directly, ostensibly giving them more control over their message. They also promise to help neuter the paparazzi by satiating the public appetite for candid photographs with approved Flickr photos and YouTube videos of royal family members, including William and Kate. “What we learned with the previous generation, with Charles and Diana, is that the media exposure went overboard,” says Estelle Bouthillier, a royal expert and information and documentation analyst in Concordia University’s office of the president. “I’m sure that Prince William will not want his wife to face all of the same problems.”
Yet there are limits to what the royal family can achieve, from a social media marketing standpoint, by attempting to wrest complete control of the message. Contrary to what most social marketers preach, the royal family’s tendency has been to restrict two-way communication with the public on sites like YouTube videos and Flickr, where comments have been disabled. Middleton, the marketing professor, cited business case studies which show that corporations that embrace social media’s unique capacity for public engagement typically generate far more Web traffic—and therefore public interest—than those that maintain a top-down approach, although they do risk exposing their carefully protected brands to some negative publicity in the process. “You’ve got to be prepared to let go,” he says.
This is particularly true in the case of Facebook, which is all about community. That may be why the royal family was convinced to allow comments on its official page, a decision that helped to boost traffic (the page boasts some 26 million “interactions,” which refers to users who click “like” or post comments), but, predictably, also created a minor controversy after some posters used the forum to criticize the monarchy or argue for its abolishment. The site’s moderators stepped in and took down some of the more abusive posts, although they argued that they didn’t single out republicans. “We’re aware that when we launch these channels, it’s riskier than it is for a lot of other organizations,” a spokesperson for the Web team says.
It may be uncharted territory for the monarchy, but it’s not entirely unfamiliar. The Queen’s insistence that television cameras be allowed to record her coronation was met with stiff protest from conservatives and traditionalists, including prime minister Sir Winston Churchill. There was a fear that broadcasting such an important regal ceremony would somehow cheapen it. “People were saying no, it wouldn’t be proper to have television cameras in the abbey because people might be drinking beer while they are watching at home,” says Bouthillier. “Her grandmother, Queen Mary, was really against it.” One can only imagine how Mary, a stickler for royal formality and propriety, would have reacted to the possibility of a royal wedding YouTube mash-up.