Royal Focus: Celebs rival the Windsor magic

Royal patrons used to guarantee kudos, but in the Big Brother era reality TV stars and sports personalities offer charities more street cred, finds Indira Das-Gupta.

At the peak of the royal family's popularity, when Prince Charles married 20-year-old Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, thousands of people lined the streets to watch the wedding procession, and 750 million people around the world watched the ceremony on television. It was an age when Union Jack tea towels weren't yet the height of naff, and having a royal patron or ambassador brought a charity real kudos.

But when Prince Charles tied the knot for the second time on 9 April by marrying Camilla Parker Bowles, it generated hardly as much anticipation as last year's Big Brother final. In the fame-obsessed noughties, when celebrities are ten a penny, the royal family competes with, and often loses to, reality TV contestants and the girlfriends of Premiership footballers for newspaper space. Does having the Duke of Edinburgh as a patron still give a charity an advantage over one that has, say, Jade Goody as an ambassador?

Most people's lives are a world away from those of the royals. This is particularly true for charity service users and beneficiaries from underprivileged backgrounds. With this in mind, is it advisable for a charity to identify itself too closely with a member of the royal family?

Dave Wood from the Duke of Edinburgh's Award says it is. "The fact that the Duke of Edinburgh is our patron and founder carries a lot of weight with many young people," he says. "They get excited about meeting him and being invited to the palace. Last year we had an award winner who was a former offender - he said it was the first time he had been given anything other than a sentence."

Dr Carol Homden, commercial director of the Prince's Trust, has had a similar experience. She says: "Two years ago we conducted some research on branding and communications, and we were quite surprised to find how much it means to the young people we work with to wear the badge of honour with the Prince of Wales' feathers on.

"We use celebrities from the world of fashion, music and sport because they have an extremely powerful influence on many disadvantaged young people with low self-esteem. But you can always see in their faces how much it means to them to meet the Prince of Wales at the awards ceremonies and to hear him pay tribute to their bravery and determination."

But neither the Duke of Edinburgh nor Prince Charles holds the appeal for young people that Prince Harry does, according to a recent survey by World Vision. In the poll, 40 per cent voted Prince Harry the best person in the country to support a charity cause. The survey of more than 1,000 young people was compiled over a two-month period from the end of December 2004 and throughout January, when the scandal of Prince Harry's Nazi officer costume broke. He even received 50 per cent more votes than David Beckham.

Had this poll been conducted during Princess Diana's lifetime, there is little doubt that she would have won hands down, and any charity celebrity co-ordinator worth their salt would have given their eye teeth to secure her support. Many would still argue that her lasting legacy is the way she transformed the royals' relationship with charities.

"Princess Diana was able to use her fame to redefine the way the royals interact with people when they visit charitable causes," says Andrew Purkis, chief executive of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. "She had a different way of doing things - she had a more accessible style and would instinctively bend down to reach a child's level.

"She was much more likely to touch people or hug them. She also gave her support to lesser-known causes such as landmines, and probably did more to change attitudes towards people with HIV than anyone else."

The fact that Princess Diana became involved with so many charities is not in itself worthy of our admiration; it's the way she did things that made a difference, according to Ros Coward, the author of Diana: The Portrait, commissioned by the Memorial Fund. "The relationship between the royal family and charity is a necessary one, as they have almost nothing else to do these days," argues Coward. "They would receive much more criticism if they didn't do anything useful, which definitely makes it a mutually beneficial relationship. So it was hardly surprising that Diana got involved with charities - in fact, it was expected of her."

However, Princess Diana certainly wasn't expected to become embroiled in some of the most controversial issues of the day. "Her involvement with Aids charities was nothing short of sensational at the time," says Coward. "Aids patients were treated as if they had the plague, but not only did she shake hands with them with no gloves on, she hugged gay men who had the virus. She was warned by royal advisers, who were horrified by her behaviour, but that made her even more determined to get involved. She really empathised with people who were accused of having brought their problems on themselves, such as Aids patients, the homeless and drug addicts. This tied in with her own experience of eating disorders. Even her harshest critics admit that her influence on these issues was remarkable."

It wasn't just her royal title that made Princess Diana such a catch. "It helped that she fulfilled people's fantasies about what a royal should be, with stunning good looks to accompany her caring approach," adds Coward. "But she really did get involved in the causes she took on."

Charities that not only have a royal patron but are named after one might be expected to benefit even more, but this isn't always the case. As Homden of the Prince's Trust points out: "People do hold the charity in high regard, but that doesn't come automatically. A reputation has to be earned."

Of course, there can also be drawbacks, as Andrew Purkis knows only too well, following the debacle of the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. "Our name can make us an easy target, but as we trade on the royal connection, we accept that it's a price we have to pay," he says.

In some circumstances, the royal connection could even be construed as a hindrance. "Situations arise where it might be played down," says Wood of the Duke of Edinburgh's award. "For instance, when we are working with young people from seriously disadvantaged backgrounds who are anti-establishment. Also, some businesspeople are anti-royal or presume that we get so much money from the Duke of Edinburgh that we don't need their support."

Another issue is that the royals are involved in so many charities that they are forced to spread themselves thinly. This is where celebrity ambassadors might come in. The Duke of Edinburgh's Award, for example, has had support from boyband McFly and Olympic rowing gold medalist Matthew Pinsent.

The Queen has long been patron of NCH, but in that time the charity has also worked with many other famous people. "NCH is very proud of its relationship with the Queen, who has been our patron for almost 40 years," says Richard White, celebrity supporter manager at NCH. "However, as head of state, availability can obviously be an issue, so NCH mainly works with the Queen as a figurehead, using our 30 vice-presidents and 150 regular celebrity supporters as more active advocates of our childcare work."

It's unlikely that a charity would use 30-stone Pop Idol reject Rik Waller, who was also thrown out of Celebrity Fit Club, to front a get-fit campaign, but he might be perfect for an anti-bullying initiative. Similarly, there might be times when using a royal might not be the best option. A spokeswoman for the Princess Royal Trust for Carers explains: "Princess Anne gives us 30 visits a year, which is a lot. But if we were doing something with young carers, we probably wouldn't put in a bid for her as she wouldn't be an attraction for them.

Zoe Macalpine, head of UK major donors for ActionAid, agrees: "Our Ambassadors' Network consists of people who give donations of £5,000 or more, and having Prince Charles as our patron seems to bring the most benefit in this area. Even if he does a tiny bit it can generate a huge amount of coverage. We have celebrity ambassadors and non-celebrity ambassadors. There is no such thing as the ideal ambassador - you need different people for different things."

WHO'S YOUR IDEAL CELEBRITY AMBASSADOR?

Matt O'Connor, Fathers 4 Justice: "Prince Charles would be our ideal patron, if he was prepared to stick his neck out. In fact, we'd like to have Harry and William too. But we have managed to become a high-profile campaign group without a royal or celebrity patron, so we don't really need one."

Dave Wood, the Duke of Edinburgh's Award: "When we asked our winners who they would like to present their award, Trevor McDonald came out on top. I think it's because at a time when pop music's flavour of the month is quickly forgotten, he represents stability."

Zoe Macalpine, ActionAid: "There is no such thing as the ideal ambassador. But it should be someone who is prepared to travel overseas to see some of our projects and who will say what we want them to say."

THE MYTH OF DIANA - A CHARITY'S EYE VIEW

Sometimes it's possible to be in at the start of a world news story and not notice, writes a former charity press officer. When my boss rang at 4am to tell me that Princess Diana had been killed, I honestly didn't realise what a huge impact this would have. I've handled my fair share of hypes and scandals, but the week following Diana's death is the only time when I've helped build up a media myth. And once was enough.

There is absolutely no doubt that Diana's support was priceless. One appearance generated coverage, in all sorts of media, on a scale nothing else could compare to. Occasionally we even managed some serious coverage of the issues. The week after her death, however, was like nothing else. The news media had cleared space to concentrate on Diana, and the charities she'd espoused were bombarded with calls 24 hours a day to speak to "people whose lives she touched" (everyone used the same phrase). The ideal scenario, which we refused to produce, was distinctly Victorian: the ministering angel mistily recalled by those less fortunate than her.

What we did produce was a group of extremely professional staff - people working on the front-line of social exclusion - who knew exactly what their interviewers expected them to say. Every so often, because they were so very good at their day jobs, they managed to get the charity's work into the conversation; but most of the time they were steered firmly into misty reminiscence. And as the week rolled on, the outpourings of emotion built up and Diana's transformation into the Queen of Hearts was completed. If you were actually part of the process, it could feel at times like a rather uneasy collusion - especially later on in the week, when the calls became rather desperate because there were still new pages and new air-time to fill.

Should we have gone along with it? We could have made more conditions (at least one colleague of mine refused to be filmed when the TV news crew came round) and we did say no to interviews with clients that would have generated enormous coverage but could have put some vulnerable people under appalling pressure. But we did need coverage. And the last thing we could afford to do was appear churlish or - heaven forbid - say anything that might in any way appear to dent or criticise the emerging myth.

Nearly eight years on, a lot of the hysteria around Diana's life and death has faded. The charity I used to work for certainly doesn't trade on her memory, and we definitely steered clear of any attempts to push us into post-Diana controversy ("don't you object to the price of tickets to Althorp Park, if your clients can't afford them?"). But that week, when we all refashioned a charming, volatile, unpredictable, beautiful, empathetic rich woman into a compassionate saint remains one of the weirdest of my life. And I still wonder how much the myth continues to obscure the real woman who died that night.

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