How Kate helped the Royal Family find its groove

The public face put forward by the Duchess of Cambridge since her wedding to Prince William a year ago has changed the way the Royal Family is viewed around the world, observers say.
Kate tests her sporting skills on March 15, 2012, in London. (Chris Jackson/Associated Press)

In the year since she got married, she's been spotted pushing a cart in the grocery store parking lot and walking with her new dog in the park.

She's been seen browsing through pillows and bed linens in a department store and bought her husband black boxer shorts for Valentine's Day.

Ordinary enough, you could say, for pretty much anyone.

Kate and Prince Charles iron artwork they had just made onto silk during a visit to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, on March 15, 2012. (John Stillwell/Associated Press)

Except in this case, it's the Duchess of Cambridge.

While there have been those glimpses of everyday life, there have also been pictures of Kate — in Canada and elsewhere — looking glamorous and every inch a member of the Royal Family she joined with her marriage to Prince William on April 29, 2011.

Still, that "ordinariness" stands out, and has become part of the public face that Kate has put forward, and something observers see as key to a larger public relations turnaround for the sometimes fusty and scandal-plagued House of Windsor that seems to have found a more modern groove.

"She's really moulded her own image," says Alanna Glicksman, a consultant with communications and public relations giant Hill & Knowlton Strategies in Toronto.

"In my opinion, Kate has redefined the definition of the people's princess. She's really changed the game for how people view the Royal Family and especially the younger generation of the Royal Family."

'Carefully thought out Kate'

The notion of a people's princess became synonymous with William's mother, Diana, but Glicksman, who has a pop culture blog called The A List, suggests Kate is a different sort of person.

"She's made sure we see her maintain a sense of normalcy. She got a dog. She wears clothing that you or I could go to a major retailer and buy. They're not being specifically made for her. She hangs out with her family still, which is a big change, because in the past the idea of marrying into the Royal Family was that you had to give up your life for the royals."

But is it the real Kate? Can we ever know the real Kate?

William and Kate relax after competing against each other in a dragon boat race at Dalvay by the Sea in Prince Edward Island on July 4, 2011. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

Glicksman thinks the public sees a "carefully thought out Kate."

"I think she is very cautious, and she's very aware of how her actions will affect her in-laws. So I think the Kate that we're seeing is the real Kate, but it’s a very constricted Kate. She's not showing her entire personality. She's very aware of her actions."

Odds are there have also been some highly skilled royal public relations experts helping mould that image.

Publicly, of course, there is an insistence that there is no grand scheme to cultivate the image we see of Kate, William, and his brother, Harry, who made quite a mark during his trip earlier this year to the Caribbean to help celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

A spokesman for Clarence House, which oversees all media-related matters for William, Harry and their father, Prince Charles, told the Guardian newspaper that there is no "concerted strategy" to make the young royals look hip and cool.

Clear control

But those who know the PR business in the United Kingdom suggest otherwise.

"There's a clear strategy, clear control," says Mark Borkowski, a British public relations expert who has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson and Joan Rivers to Cirque du Soleil and Mikhail Gorbachev.

"There's a modern PR operation," Borkowski says of the Clarence House group that includes people whose resumés would include PR for soccer superteam Manchester United, which had its own share of celebrity headaches, and the U.K. Ministry of Defence.

'They've obviously learned a lot of lessons from the late Diana.' —Mark Borkowski

"There wasn't a particularly modern PR operation [for] Diana," adds Borkowski. "In fact, it was a do-it-yourself, she took over herself and got in lots of hot water with her private relationships. [Now,] it's very much a savvy, modern PR team who are in the background. They don't seek to be in the spotlight for what they do. They're very self-effacing, but they know just how far they can go, and they know that they have to be honest."

In contemplating how the Royal Family emerged from the "doldrums" of the years it became mired in scandals, Borkowski also points to the "beautiful ordinariness" of Kate as a critical factor.

"I think that's the thing that surrounds the brand," he says.

"They've obviously learned a lot of lessons from the late Diana."

Long shadow

William's mother, who died in 1997, casts a long shadow over the family, an influence British royalty expert Carolyn Harris of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., sees extending into how Kate has been welcomed into the Royal Family.

"Diana complained about receiving very little guidance in her royal duties and very little praise when she did something right or advice in the early years of her marriage, and it seems the Royal Family is taking a very close interest in Kate and integrating her into the family and making sure that she feels comfortable in her new role," says Harris, who writes about royals on her blog.

Kate and Queen Elizabeth watch a fashion show in Leicester, England, on March 8, 2012, during the first stop of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee tour in the United Kingdom as she celebrates 60 years on the throne. (Oli Scarff/Associated Press)

So we've seen Kate go with the Queen and Prince Philip on a royal engagement to mark the Diamond Jubilee. Kate, the Queen, and Prince Charles's wife Camilla made a rare appearance together at the upscale Fortnum & Mason store in London, also to mark the jubilee.

Ask around, and no can think of any missteps by Kate in her first year in the Royal Family. Rather, the media seem to have their sights set on Kate's sister, Pippa, who had her own tabloid headline dust-up recently when she was pictured in a car in Paris beside a man waving what turned out to be a toy handgun.

"I think this scrutiny of her family really shows just how well Catherine has done in her role," says Harris. "If she was making missteps of her own, I don't think there'd be quite so much interest in what her sister is doing travelling in France."

Happy glow

Of course, there is one Kate-related headline that hasn't been printed yet: that she and William are about to become parents.

"There's been very intense interest in when or if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will start a family," says Harris, who notes there's no particular political imperative for a pregnancy at the moment because there are several people from Harry on down in the line of succession to the throne.

"If they didn't have children, there would be numerous other heirs, but it really speaks to their popularity that there's so much interest in the Royal Family continuing in that direct line. You know that should they announce an addition to the family, there'll be extremely intense interest in that."

For now, though, any happy glow around Kate is just the same aura the Royal Family is enjoying in the media these days.

But don't count on the positive headlines lasting forever.

"It's cyclical," says Borkowski, the PR veteran. "Life is complex."

Why would it be any different for the royals, he asks, than it would be for the rest of us?

Until then, though, every so often, we'll probably see Kate at the grocery store.


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.