Duke and Duchess represent a generational shift for the royals

LONDON — The Globe and Mail

Britain's Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge appear with their baby son outside the Lindo Wing of St Mary's Hospital, in central London July 23, 2013. Kate gave birth to the couple's first child, who is third in line to the British throne, on Monday afternoon, ending weeks of feverish anticipation about the arrival of the royal baby. (CATHAL MCNAUGHTON/REUTERS)

Looking like a handsome affable couple who could almost – almost – be your neighbours, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge appeared at the door of St. Mary’s Hospital in their nonchalant clothing with Dad holding the baby as though he’d done it a hundred times.

For the thousands of onlookers, it was both a stirring moment of generational shift, and a new era of casual accessibility embodied by the Duchess’s polka-dot dress and the Duke’s rolled-up shirtsleeves and open collar. And for a public spectacle seen by millions across the world, the family’s first appearance was made to feel like an intimate, communal gathering, seeing the new family drive off in their Range Rover SUV, with the Duke at the wheel.

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Ask anyone in the crowd why they came to the hospital and it’s clear that William and Kate represent a new, more accessible face of the British monarchy, one that appears more in touch with a younger generation, down to budgetary concerns. Others point to a radical change in the royal household’s approach to publicity and a willingness to hire hard-nosed professionals who have restored the House of Windsor’s lustre.

They have done it through a series of carefully crafted appearances, using the press to project an image of a humble, almost ordinary couple. That has resonated with Brits who have been eager to embrace a new set of royals since the death of Prince William’s mother Diana in 1997.

“They have come a long way,” said public-relations consultant Mark Borkowski, who has followed the royals closely. “You just feel that there is a strong hand of control.”

He and others point to Princess Diana’s death as the turning point. The Royal Family came under intense criticism for the way they handled her death. The Queen seemed to hide away in Scotland while the nation mourned, and the family couldn’t seem to cope with the public’s grief and growing disenchantment. Public support for the monarchy sank to record lows.

“The 1990s really was the low point,” said Joe Twyman, director of political and social research at British polling firm YouGov. “What the Royal Family realized was that effective public relations was going to be important in the 21st century.”

Few royals grasped that better than the Duke and Duchess. Last year, they reorganized their 12-member personal staff, bringing in a team of experts from the media and corporate world, all under the age of 40. They aren’t afraid to play hardball with the press, offering conditional access and slamming down injunctions at any invasion of privacy. They have the added advantage of a demoralized press corps, beaten down by the phone hacking scandal and facing a host of new regulations.

The events of the past few days illustrate the team’s effectiveness as the Duke and Duchess avoided photographers on their way into the hospital Monday and kept the birth of their child secret for more than four hours.

There is more to the PR effort, including a highly publicized trip to a mosque in Malaysia last year and a visit to an Islamic school in England, all efforts to broaden the reach of the royals. And on Tuesday, in a nod to the memory of Diana, who is still adored by millions, the Duchess wore the blue sapphire engagement ring that Prince Charles gave to Diana in 1981.

Sources inside Kensington Palace insist they are doing nothing extraordinary and that it is the Duke and Duchess controlling the agenda. “They are very, very genuine people. So what you see is what you get,” said one source who works closely on public relations. “There is no great plan to all of this.”

Mr. Borkowski noted that the monarchy has been blessed with a string of good news, which has helped bolster its image. The wedding of the Duke and Duchess in 2011, followed by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebration last year and the royal baby this year, have added to the mystique and driven public support for the royals to near record highs.

And that support cuts across racial lines, something remarkable considering that only a few weeks ago Britain was torn apart over the murder of a soldier in the streets of London in an alleged jihadist attack. On Monday, the throng outside the hospital was a mix of races, many singing and dancing together. They shared a bond of the monarchy that defined what it means to be British.

“Many second- and third-generation children born to Caribbean or African parents regard themselves as British, so the news of a royal baby is something which they can relate to,” said George Ruddock, editor and managing director of The Voice, Britain’s largest black newspaper. “Their parents or grandparents who came over from former British colonies also regard the news as something special because they still have that strong link with everything British.”

For many, like 16-year old Hannah Humble, the attraction to the royals is more basic. “It’s just amazing standing with all the British public because the atmosphere is great, everyone cheers,” Ms. Humble said after standing outside the hospital for several hours to see the couple and their baby. “It really unites because you have something to talk about, which is common and you make new friends. Everyone is here, it doesn’t matter what race or culture.”

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