Communications professional of the year
Director, Royal Communications
As Sally Osman, director, Royal Communications, prepares to depart from Buckingham Palace, it is a timely decision to award her this year’s Communications Professional of the Year honour, coming as it does at the end of a year in which Prince Harry got married, the Queen commemorated 65 years on the throne and Prince Charles celebrated his 70th birthday.
But Osman is adamant, that this year was no different from any other.
‘Every year is interesting because there is always some big event, in which the Royals play a part, whether it is a family event or a national or even international event, but it has been a happy year,’ she concedes.
Osman has spent five and a half years in her current role. ‘Anybody who comes into a senior communications role at the Palace, or one of the big households, is just stewarding it for however long you are there,’ she says. ‘Our job is to ensure that the public understands the purpose of monarchy, and the value it brings to society – not just in this country, but around the other 15 realms and the wider Commonwealth and indeed the wider world. As [former US ambassador] Matthew Barzun once said She is our Queen too.
‘There is a distinction between what we do to articulate the Monarchy, and its purpose and value, and then the role that each of the individuals play within that story, in terms of working in support of the Queen but also doing their own fantastic work, which is a soft power that is not to be underestimated. We are custodians for a while, and then hand onto someone else who has to fulfil that role within an ever-changing context.’
Our job is to ensure that the public understands the purpose of monarchy, and the value it brings to society – not just in this country, but around the other 15 realms and the wider Commonwealth and indeed the wider world
For Osman, that has meant leading communications in an increasingly social media obsessed world. She is particularly proud that the ‘organisation’ now recognises and understands how important digital platforms are in telling the story of the Monarchy. ‘Digital is right at the centre of everything. We have to be as good as the best journalists in what we are putting out, but it enables us to tell the story in a way that mainstream media just would not,’ she explains. ‘We shine a light onto other members of the Royal Family, who are still working incredibly hard and bringing value to the organisations they support. It is also about telling how this institution works; yes, there is a mystique about it, but equally there are incredibly professional people doing very professional jobs, such as finance or property. But social media can also spread a bit of the magic – the views from the inside.’
There is also the global media to contend with – more than 3,000 media outlets gained accreditation to cover the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. ‘We are working for one of the biggest brands in the world, which isn’t actually a brand. It’s a family and an institution that goes back centuries,’ says Osman. ‘We have to be excellent at what we do because people trust us. I am absolutely crystal clear that the team must be credible, accurate, impartial – just telling the story.’
When it came to the wedding, and other major events, Osman and her team worked in conjunction with Government, local authorities, police forces. ‘The work that we do cannot be done without good and incredibly strong relationships with all of those partner organisations,’ she explains. ‘Whether it is Trooping the Colour or a member of the Royal Family on an away day, even a low key visit, it still involves the host organisation, the police, local authorities… there is a lot of planning. No detail is too small. The planning is absolutely meticulous.’
She adds: ‘There is a lot of recceing, opp notes and liaising with these different organisations. We also rely a lot on [the hosts] for content, because, as we are a relatively small team, we can’t go everywhere. There is a lot of organisation to make sure we get the material that tells the story.’
Osman is adamant that it is a team effort with ‘the right people in the right jobs’ – Jason Knauf, communications secretary at Kensington Palace, and his counterpart Julian Payne at Clarence House. ‘There is now an incredibly good, collaborative operation across all households because we are all working in the interests of the Institution. Planning is better, in terms of de-conflicting things. We all work in support of each other. The operations are separate to a degree, because we have three generations of Royals working, and they have all got their different styles and they are all doing it in their own way – which is an incredible strength to have in an organisation. But we plan so that if there is a big event, or even a small one and people need help and resource, we deploy.’
She adds: ‘An awful lot of the work that does happen is stuff that doesn’t get a lot of media coverage but it could be the biggest event in a person’s life, like an investiture or a garden party – the warp and weft of Royal activity. It is really important that we never forget that and make it the best it can be. That is why digital is so important – the media will always focus on the celebrities, we can focus on the unsung heroes.’
The Royal communications team has ‘moved away from being just a press office [Osman has banned the term]: we are a communications office and we deal with all sorts of media, such as specialist media, as Jason did with mental health campaign with Heads Together, or Julian with conservation issues. We deal with the media who understand the subject, as well as the Royal rota, who still play an important part.’
Osman says that the starting point for any communications strategy is understanding that the Monarchy relies on public approval to exist. ‘The Prince of Wales has said you can’t strategise a family, but what we do is to strategise communications around what they do, that is about engaging the public in their purpose and values,’ she adds. ‘The documentaries you see play a very important role, especially the ones where we work with the producers, because they have such a reach – like the Queen walking through the gardens at Buckingham Palace with Sir David Attenborough talking about trees, or talking about the Crown Jewels and the Coronation. They show the Queen is hale and hearty, and just extraordinary. We invest an awful lot of time with documentary makers to make sure they get it right.’
The Commonwealth has been an important part of the Queen’s reign, this year particularly so with the 25th Heads of Government Meeting at which her successor as head was elected. ‘There is a lot of creativity in what we do. It was about creating events and stories about how to portray the modern Commonwealth. We did quite a lot of work around the Queen’s Young Leaders [a four year project celebrating exceptional young people from the Commonwealth] and the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange, which created an installation in Buckingham Palace which brought in a whole different audience to celebrate the creativity and fashion expertise that exists across the Commonwealth,’ she says.
The starting point for any communications strategy is understanding that the Monarchy relies on public approval to exist
Surprisingly, there are few protocols and limited red tape to battle with. ‘If you have a great idea, you can send a memo to the Queen and if she says ‘yes’, you’re off. She is amazing at seeing the value of doing things.’ It was the Queen who pushed the Royal Family onto social media, arguing they needed to be where people were. ‘She is very supportive of the big ideas we have for social media in the future. The Monarchy has to be seen to be doing its job, otherwise people ask why we need it, which goes full circle back to what our job is which is to engage people in the purpose, relevance and value of a modern Monarchy.’
The key way people now engage with the Monarchy is through the patronages and the issues they support. ‘If you look at Prince Philip, he was doing it his way with conservation with the World Wildlife Fund, and helping young people through the Duke of Edinburgh awards. Prince Charles ahead of his time [on issues like plastic and global warming] and the Princess of Wales, who did it her way with Aids and some very unfashionable causes at the time. And now you have the next generation doing the same thing in their own way, and it is incredibly powerful. You can’t put a monetary value on that, but there is a massive social value – this strength of having three generations out there doing their stuff, including the Queen’s cousins, who were her support network when she first started.
Prior to joining Clarence House, before her move to Buckingham Palace, Osman was told ‘never forget it’s a family, it’s a Royal Court’. ‘I thought Of course it is, that’s obvious. But actually when you are in it, and living through it, you realise that means things are done in certain ways, either because that’s what the Queen likes or they have deep symbolism. If you mess with them, you mess with what the Monarchy stands for. Coming to terms with that is fascinating, but then working within that framework to try to nudge things forward in terms of the way we communicate purpose and values is where it has been really interesting. The possibilities of what you can do within the framework are extraordinary if you have the imagination and the understanding of what we are trying to convey to the wider world.’