Chairman's Desk

Queen Elizabeth shows flexibility as social media shifts power to her grandchildren

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on January 19, 2019.

For the last 66 years, Queen Elizabeth has skilfully walked the tight rope between being a bulwark of tradition, keeping things more or less as they have always been and skilfully adjusting as England and the world spun forward around her.

Nothing was ever new; just enhanced.

As the Queen has adopted new technologies — from televising her coronation and annual Christmas speech to increasing the use of social media — who can ever forget her “phone drop” to promote the Invictus Games or her arrival by parachute with James Bond at the opening of the London Olympics — she has, by and large, sought to preserve the decorous traditions of the British monarchy.

The give-and-take (or lack thereof) between tradition and modernity is precisely the tension that fascinates so many. It is this tension that is the dramatic underpinning of Netflix’s biographical drama, “The Crown,” which this week got some real-life experience to add to this theme.

The makings of this new episode began when the Queen’s grandson, Prince Harry, and his wife, Meghan Markle, trademarked “Sussex Royal” and posted a photo to their Instagram account announcing their intention to step back from their royal duties, seek financial independence and take up a new life in North America, all the while honouring “our duty to the Queen, the Commonwealth, and our patronages.”

While news coverage has been devoted to the announcement’s substance, the medium here is equally as important as the message. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have effectively used social media to leap over their 93-year-old grandmother and family. The Queen of England now finds herself embroiled in a singularly modern predicament: an asymmetrical communications campaign that pits individuals against institutions.

Again and again, we have seen a similar dynamic play out in such situations. While institutions are hamstrung by tradition, bureaucracy, and red tape, individuals are empowered by social media to be self-defining, agile and swift.

Case in point: While Harry and Meghan could rush out their campaign as if it were a lifestyle-brand-in-a-box, (along with the post they launched a website, complete with glossy photographs, inspirational quotations from the likes of Desmond Tutu with web copy written in the tone of an Instagram influencer), the Queen had to resort to issuing her rebuttal statement in two sentences printed on Buckingham Palace letterhead.

The generational divide could not be more clear; nor the implications. This is not a fair fight.

While it may be unpleasant to go up against one’s own family, this dynamic yields the couple a few distinct advantages. First, their new media relations strategy circumvents the depraved British tabloids, and their antiquated “royal rota” system.

While the Royal Family has tolerated no end of vitriol from the press (remember Waity Katie? Or Fergie, the Duchess of Pork?), rationalized by the adage, “We pay, you pose,” Harry and Meghan seek to change the rules, an objective made all the more urgent by the press’ clear double standard when it comes to covering Meghan Markle versus Kate Middleton.

As those same British tabloids have reported breathlessly on the behind-the-scenes machinations at work throughout this entire episode, another advantage has become apparent.

By staking out a clear, public position and then negotiating, the couple most likely stymied attempts by the Queen’s courtiers to delay or dilute their plan. Declaring their intention for a clean break was perhaps the only way for Harry and Meghan to break through the institutional monarchy’s resistance to doing things new.
But if there is a resistance to things new, the Queen, herself, demonstrated last week a willingness to enhance.

In the days since the launch of Sussex Royal, the Queen has followed a playbook of her own. She took charge, summoned all the influence of her court, gathered her family for the so-called Sandringham Summit, and after its conclusion, released a statement cautiously endorsing her grandson’s plan.

But the real news was how the statement was written. One royal historian, speaking to the BBC, remarked that its tone was “unusually personal” with its several references to “my family” or “my grandson.” What’s more, it abandoned the use of formal titles, referring instead to “Harry and Meghan.”

Her Majesty demonstrated, once again, just what it means to enhance.