Can anyone save the Princess now?

Diana is now a PR disaster. Rebecca Fowler assesses the damage and, below, invites the experts to rescue her

She was the tops, the icing on the royal cake, the smile that launched a thousand press conferences, a diamond who won back the public for the monarchy. But after the fairy-tale turned rotten and the palace press machinery dropped her like a tarnished crown, when no one needed a spin doctor more than the woman formally known as HRH - once set to be the Queen of England but now just plain Princess Diana - she blew it.

Nothing could better sum up the right royal mess Princess Diana has got herself into than the way in which she has turned even her choice of PR into a public relations disaster. The dramatic resignation of Jane Atkinson, who appeared a smart, no-nonsense pro, and the even more dramatic decision by the Princess to return from her holiday with Fergie in the South of France to confront her last week, was nothing short of madness.

In PR terms the post-HRH Diana was a world-class challenge. Here is a woman who until a few weeks ago was in the super league of stardom as the future queen of England, where only the likes of the Pope, Mother Teresa, Michael Jackson and the Queen reside. It was up to the Princess and her PR to ensure that she did not lose her icon status and topple down into the premier league of the merely very, very famous, alongside movie stars and football players, where all are fair game for tabloid scrutiny.

It has also left Diana exposed at the time when she most needed protection, amid the growing speculation that she is obsessive, jealous and paranoid. In the past few months, no one has better fuelled the credibility of her spiteful enemies than she herself. For the first time, as her followers watched the image of a thoroughly reasonable Ms Atkinson remaining serenely stumm over the resignation saga, even her devotees were wondering whether it could possibly be true that Diana is really unhinged and as much an illusion as the marriage that brought her so much fame in the first place.

Instead of seizing the challenge, Princess Diana, once the unmatched queen of PR, protected by her role and the palace, has lurched from one disaster to another in her now clumsy and transparent bid to hold on to her former glory. With each wrong move, she has followed it with an even worse blunder in an attempt to right the first.

It began with that Panorama interview. She played her trump card and finally called on the enormous public sympathy she had earned through 15 years of dazzling public appearances and private torment. Her performance was a stunning expose of a royal machinery that had completely betrayed her, and left her isolated in the marriage from hell. As Diana did the unthinkable and told the world, the world held its breath and cheered her courage, her humour and even her guile. She also devised her own role, in anticipation of the confusion that would follow her divorce: the Queen of People's Hearts.

But she could only play that card once. For Di to carry it off, she had to retreat back into the mystique that made her an icon in the first place. Instead, she reverted to act after act of apparent petulance. The moving image of Diana breaking down in tears in public developed into a regular display or waterworks; and the staged photographs of midnight visits to the sick in hospitals began to take on the air of parody which climaxed in the televised image of Diana in surgical gowns, make-up intact, watching a heart operation on a child.

When the divorce finally came through nothing could better sum up just what a great chunk of the plot Diana had lost than her decision first of all to drop her patronage of 100 charities. It followed the announcement that she would no longer be HRH, and to the public appeared to be obviously and petulantly connected. While some would blame the palace for jeopardising the finest ambassador of good causes in the world, more saw it as a big tantrum. This was not scripted for the Queen of Hearts. The timing was quite simply rotten.

Immediately after, she decided to go on holiday with the Duchess of York, Fergie, the mascot of modern royal folly and disaster, the most discredited duchess in the history of the Royal Family. For years Di had played her relationship with Fergie, in PR terms, with rigorous shrewdness. While she visited her regularly for Sunday lunch, and shared confidences, she would never been seen in public with her. It was a private arrangement that protected Di's unsullied PR cloak. Suddenly not only was she holidaying with Fergie in the South of France, an image akin to a French and Saunders sketch, she was also allowing her ex-sister in law to speak to Ms Atkinson on the phone.

So who will save Diana now? If she continues in her current mode she risks turning into the worst kind of parody of herself on the Sunset Boulevard of forgotten royals, a Gloria Swanson figure who in a few years' time will be turning around to a bored tabloid press to declare: "I'm ready for my close-up now Mr De Mille," convinced her finest performance is yet to come.

The PR gurus are divided. While she is still the most photographed woman in the world, and mother to the heir to the throne, some believe she has outstayed her welcome centre stage. But Princess Diana still has charisma, charm, a unique ability to communicate with the public - which has become such a precious royal commodity. It is quite simply a case of situation vacant: wanted, adviser to take on the most famous and difficult woman in the world, and reclaim her crown. Nothing negotiable.

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