Focus: Diana the ghost in the PR machine

It was blatant, but effective. Round one to Prince Charles' new spin doctor and the 'Dianification' of Prince Harry. Then, from beyond the grave, disaster...
Click to follow

Diana, Princess of Wales, speaks of her pain. A young royal with her doe eyes and her poise in front of the cameras is pictured with an African orphan. Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales tries to win public support in his own idiosyncratic way, with a call for the NHS to embrace complementary therapies. In the past week, it has been almost as if the Princess of Hearts were still alive and the publicity battle between Diana and Prince Charles ongoing. As it is - but from beyond the grave, and with new tactics that involve the Prince's spin-doctor making a conscious attempt to bestow some of the mother's magic on the son.

So it is that even as her wounded voice is broadcast on American television via tapes reminding us of the pain in the House of Windsor, the cameras capture Prince Harry doing good works in Lesotho. At 19, Prince Harry was in dire need of what the public relations industry calls "reputation management". It had been plain for some time that the informal agreement reached between newspapers and the palace after the untimely demise of his mother was not operating smoothly. Prince Harry and his older brother, the St Andrews University undergraduate Prince William, were supposed to be granted freedom to mature without the attention of reporters and photographers.

But Prince Harry had already tested the indulgence of the press. He had been caught smoking marijuana and drinking, when he was under age. Last month, deference turned to disgust. Carol Sarler, a columnist on the Daily Express, branded Prince Harry "a national disgrace" who had wasted "the costliest education in the land" (he is an Old Etonian). She described him as a "thoroughly horrible young man" who "has rarely lifted a finger unless it's to feel up a cheap tart in a nightclub or shoot some harmless critter".

That assault came shortly after Prince Harry had been criticised for his antics during the Rugby World Cup. Agreement or no agreement, the Prince was in danger of being monstered by the popular press, and his father's communications secretary, Paddy Harverson, was not about to tolerate it. Initially, the response was restricted to a point-by-point rebuttal in a letter the Express published without comment. But Mr Harverson, who was poached from his previous job looking after the media interests of Manchester United, knew he had to do better than that. Last week he tried.

The story of "The Prince and the Pauper" took the mass circulation dailies by storm. Its ingredients were calculated to the last detail. Prince Harry was whisked to Lesotho, teamed up with a very photogenic little orphan called Mutsu Potsane and, reciting carefully from a prepared script, permitted to express his "deep shock" about the impact of Aids. He helped Mutsu plant a peach sapling. For the hard of thinking, reminders of his mother's sincere commitment to the victims of Aids were provided. Message: "Harry is not an arrogant freeloader. He is a caring chip off the Princess of Hearts' own dear block."

The story was carefully tailored for each receptive audience. Thus the most enthusiastically royalist broadsheet, The Daily Telegraph, was steered towards Prince Harry's shock at the rape and wounding of a tiny baby called Kekeletso. It was also given a copy of the Prince's letter to the other patients at the unit where Kekeletso is treated. The letter was published on the Telegraph's front page. The strategy was effective, if a little blatant. Prince Harry had been accused of arrogance, so he was depicted oozing humility. He socialises in the lap of luxury, so he was paraded for the cameras in the proximity of abject squalor. He is alleged to be insensitive, so he held hands with the most tiny, vulnerable little boy.

Despite all this, cynicism lurked beneath even the most enthusiastic coverage. The Daily Mail's royal reporter, Richard Kay, wrote that the whole performance "might seem to many a glorified public relations stunt", and pointed out "a polished professionalism to the photo call Clarence House arranged".

Mr Harverson is the latest in a line of professional PR advisers to the Prince of Wales. In 2000, one of his predecessors, Sandy Henney, resigned following media criticism of the handling of photographs of Prince William's 18th birthday. Ms Henney's successor, Colleen Harris, quit in July 2003 - just six months after Prince Charles had lost his most senior PR adviser, Mark Bolland, the former director of the Press Complaints Commission.

Mr Bolland set the standard to which Mr Harverson now aspires. In 2001, he won the accolade "PR Professional of the Year" for bringing about "a massive sea-change in the relationship between Charles and the press". Mr Bolland was the first royal spinmeister to successfully challenge the ghost that hangs over everything the Windsor family does: Diana, dead but emphatically not forgotten.

Last week, she re-emerged to give Mr Harverson a forceful reminder that massaging the presentation of the heir to the throne and his sons is even harder than looking after that other prince of the celebrity era, David Beckham. Mr Harverson's approach is to "Dianify" the late Princess's sons. It is a tactic fraught with danger. The Diana Tapes aired on America's NBC network might almost have been designed to remind him that Prince Harry's father is still notorious for being vile to the Prince's mother. The Harverson plan runs the obvious risk that Prince Harry and Prince William will be praised for evidence of Diana-like conduct and condemned for every act that reminds royal watchers of their father. Arrogance, disdain, wandering affections and killing animals are perceived as established "Charles" characteristics. Care for the poor, dispossessed and neglected are straight from the Diana mould. It does not matter that both sets of impressions are the result of expert image manipulation and depressing mass credulity. Mr Harverson is too experienced to believe he can totally reverse the tide.

Lesotho was an omen of what is to come. The agreement to leave the princes alone, technically in force until each attains the age of 21, has already been undermined by Clarence House's apparent willingness to deploy the princes whenever positive PR seems attainable. But as Diana learned, if you invite the press to witness your achievements and advertise your virtues, it becomes much harder to send them away when their presence is no longer convenient. In addition, Mr Harverson's efforts to manage royal reputations are obstructed by the Diana myth. Diana may have been scheming, conniving and bonkers, but the segment of the British public that cares most about such things does not believe that. Her myth stymied his predecessors.

Mr Bolland worked around it. He promoted Prince Charles by ruthlessly undermining every other living royal except the Queen. Mr Harverson cannot do that. His boss wants Diana's sons to be adored no matter what Charles's private thoughts about their mother may be. No celebrity client could be harder to handle than this prince, who demands incompatible outcomes simultaneously.