Whether video-calling military personnel or bestowing a socially distanced knighthood on the centenarian Captain Tom Moore, the Queen has stuck doggedly to her mantra: she has to be seen to be believed.
Yet in the era of coronavirus senior aides have faced challenges achieving this, especially at a time when some members of the royal family are under scrutiny, none more so than Prince Andrew since the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell.
Putting the Queen in public view has rarely been more important – but it involves detailed planning, a grid system to avoid engagement clashes, and persuasive power to convince the 94-year-old monarch that, yes, she can Zoom.
This burden falls on teams of palace private secretaries and communications chiefs, led by the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Edward Young, a former bank executive and Conservative party adviser. They include his opposite number at Clarence House, Clive Alderton, a former ambassador, and Christian Jones, a former Treasury press officer and speechwriter, now acting private secretary at Kensington Palace.
Their day job – delivering the royals to the public – is very different now. Aside from the technical challenges, and the painstaking planning, there is always the threat, as evidenced in recent weeks, of an external force hijacking the process.
A beautifully packaged video of the Cambridge family, for instance, can be blown out of the water by an impromptu speech by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex over in Los Angeles.
Ghislaine Maxwell’s arrest, and New York court appearance, immediately put the Duke of York back on the front pages, whatever else the royals might have had planned.
“Yes, it’s not helpful. And it’s got to be galling,” said Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty Magazine. “But there is nothing any royal household can do about announcements coming from the west coast of America, or a New York court room.”
The institution of monarchy has been going for 1,000 years. It operates to a steady drumbeat of nation and state rather than a moment-to-moment tactical battle strategy. And it believes the best way to combat the slings and arrows that come its way is to keep calm, and carry on doing what it has always done.
Its role, at the moment, is to thank people on behalf of the nation – be they transport workers, firefighters, carers, nurses – carving up the workload between each royal household. Leadership teams at each palace meet weekly. A grid with every engagement on it points to any overlaps. There is close coordination with government to avoid clashes with major announcements.
Coronavirus has changed everything, even for the royals. For the first time ever, they could not be seen in person and had immediately to transform into a digital presence. But there was no guarantee that they were going to be able to make that leap, given none of them had done so before.
The suddenness of lockdown meant no time to put technology in place. Charles only had a smartphone at his disposal, and a pile of books for props in his Birkhall study in Scotland. In his lockdown broadcasts some detected a new informality – talking of missing and hugging his grandchildren – perhaps because he was more relaxed in the environs of his own home.
Getting in a BBC TV crew for the Queen’s 5 April broadcast to the nation, with her evocative “we will meet again” message, involved extraordinary planning, which could clearly not be repeated regularly. No one could have confidently predicted four months ago that the Queen would be taking part in video conference calls, but she has absorbed them into her way of working with remarkable speed, royal sources said. “She seems to have taken to that like a duck to water,” said Little.
As lockdown begins to ease, the royals, aside from the Queen, are back on the road. There are no crowds, a tiny press pool, and social distancing markers on the floors. Whereas once a team of aides would have recce’d an engagement in advance, it is now done by video call. Aides believe the royals have proved themselves remarkably fleet of foot in adapting, and do not rule out further innovation and evolution.
“They have to be seen to remain relevant. And it highlights that the palace is capable of adapting to anything – and that would be their mantra,” Little said.