It’s always tricky, the first royal engagement of the new term.
Usually the royals don’t get back to ‘work’ until the first week of September, but, wisely, Will and Kate opted to jump back onto the front pages a week or so early this year, with a bevy of public appearances: on Wednesday they attended three different venues including a kids’ club and a hospital in Luton, and on Thursday they made a visit—shrouded in secrecy for reasons which became clear later that day—to a teen crisis helpline where they sat in on calls.
Getting back in the public eye early may well mean that the inevitable criticisms of the work-shy Cambridges and their excessive royal summer holidays, facilitated by the late Duke of Westminster’s private jet, will be slightly more dulled than is usual.
However, Kate’s a belt and braces type of girl, and acutely media-savvy. There is no way that she would not have been acutely aware of the demographic distance between her and William and her future subjects as represented by the occupants of a Luton drop-in centre for troubled adolescents.
The Daily Mail was firing up for the predictable hatchet job with an initial headline focusing on the Cambridge’s tans (they spent several weeks of the summer on holiday with friends in France), when Kate did something very, very smart.
She mentioned Prince George.
Some of the kids who are supported by the charity were cooking chocolate biscuits and Kate told them, “When I try to do this with George at home, the chocolate and the golden syrup goes everywhere,” she said, “He makes so much mess. It’s chaos.”
Instantly online news outlets started rewriting their accounts of the day to lead with the ‘news’ that Prince George makes a mess while baking.
William and Kate’s glowing tans were forgotten.
There might be some who would argue that this was just Kate being her spontaneous self, and certainly it would have come across that way to the average consumer of royal news.
But the truth is pretty far from that.
This is the woman who wouldn’t allow courtiers to tell the press the name of her dog, let’s remember, on the grounds it was ‘private’.
Kate fiercely rations not just access to George, but even her mentions of him. The information firewall is part of what she regards as her and William’s (remarkably successful) mission to preserve the privacy of their children’s lives.
So when some piece of ‘intel’ does leak out—George wears a monogrammed dressing gown, George makes a mess while baking—it inevitably receives huge, if disproportionate, coverage.
Kate knows this better than anyone. Although she does get nervous at public events, it is inconceivable that Kate would have randomly blurted out details of George’s life without carefully thinking through the publicity consequences of her words.
And if part of the goal of the early return to work was to blunt the attacks on their lifestyle, then mentioning George is very astute.
How could the Daily Mail attack a mother who does baking her with her kids? This is Kate living out the ultimate domestic British middle-class motherhood fantasy in the same week as the return of one of the most popular shows on British TV, The Great British Bake Off, an uplifting, weekly competitive celebration of baking.
The following day, Thursday, the Cambridges had another engagement—but this one was shrouded in secrecy. A few senior reporters were tipped off that they would be attending a parental helpline run by the charity Young Minds as part of their overarching support of mental health, but their reports were strictly embargoed.
Officially, this was so the helpline would not be overrun by fans hoping to get a one-on-one with Kate or Will (in fact, they didn’t actually speak to any callers, instead they just listened in) but there may have also been a more, let’s call it practical rather than cynical, motivation as well.
It turned out that Kensington Palace had the bright idea of making and releasing their own film about the day’s events, and didn’t want to be scooped.
This is all part of their public relations mastermind Jason Knauf’s plan to bypass traditional media as much as possible, which he sees (with much justification) as interested largely in denigrating the royals or invading their kids’ privacy, and reach out directly to Kate and Will’s public through social media.
The resulting video was intriguing for royal watchers in that, once again Kate referred at some length to her children.
“We’re parents ourselves, I am sure we will face worries, we do face worries, because we have small young children, but you know, if those worries escalate, having that feeling that there is somebody there …”
Of course, the idea that Kate Middleton would ever call the Young Minds helpline is patently absurd, but that’s to deliberately miss the point.
The Cambridges are breaking with centuries of royal tradition that said royalty thrived on otherness and mystery and desperately want us to believe an even greater fiction—that they are actually just like us.
On September 24, Will and Kate are off on a tour to Canada, on which they are expected to be accompanied by their two children.
It will be interesting to see how they will cast their kids on this week-long tour and whether they can reconcile the international media’s thirst for glamor with their domestic agenda, which appears to be focused with laser-like precision on emphasizing their normality.