William v Harry: are princes in a charity work battle royal?

Esther Addley
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Phil Harris/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Phil Harris/AFP/Getty Images

It was a roster of “wonderful talent”, Prince William said earlier this week. And so it gave him great pleasure to honour the winners of the Tusk awards, organised by a conservation charity working in Africa of which he is patron, at an online ceremony.

“I hope their stories go far and wide,” the Duke of Cambridge continued, in a video call from one of his several drawing rooms. His hope, he said, was that “young people look to these role models and say: ‘I can do the same.’”

Five thousand miles away, at almost the same time, another duke was perched on another cream sofa speaking to a camera about another conservation organisation. But for Prince Harry, who was launching a new “Netflix-style environmental streaming platform”, inspiration would not be enough.

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“For me, it’s about putting the ‘dos’ behind the ‘says’,” said Harry, who was speaking as president of a network of African national parks. The platform would “capitalise on a community of doers. There’s a lot of people that say, but this is about action.”

To those still unconvinced, he said every drop of water that fell relieved the parched ground. “What if every single one of us was a raindrop?”

There was a time when the two royal brothers would have worked together on an issue in which they share such an interest – or at the very least choreographed their efforts so as to avoid such an obvious clash. Those days, however, are long gone, since William and Harry fell out, apparently over the latter’s wife, Meghan, and particularly since the Sussexes fled the royal family and the UK this year.

Is this an explicit publicity battle between the brothers, a fraternal battle of one-upmanship over who is more committed to elephants? It’s unlikely – and there is no reason to assume either is insincere. But winning a fickle public’s support for a good cause takes more than a Zoom connection and some earnest, if not always fully intelligible, soundbites.

Their wives, too, have been making their own carefully considered public interventions. After launching a national poll on the subject earlier this year, William’s wife, Kate, spoke last week about the importance of early years development, while her sister-in-law wrote movingly in the New York Times about suffering a miscarriage in the summer, and urging others to speak out about their own painful losses.

All four won extensive media coverage – which illustrates why charities are still delighted to be associated with the young royals, says Greg Jones, the managing director of Mischief PR.

“I mean, the coverage is phenomenal, the spread of coverage across national newspapers, which is still the holy grail to most clients that I work with.” But the question, he says, is “what does it actually drive people to do? Does it drive people to act, to donate? It’s pretty hard to quantify.”

In fact, a study published this year found that most charities gained little or nothing from associations with the royals, certainly in terms of income. The research by the charity consultancy Giving Evidence also found that even before the Sussexes’ breakaway, the younger royals were taking on far fewer causes compared with the Queen and her children, while they focused particularly on those they had set up themselves, and which were convenient to their royal residences.

Meanwhile, the type of coverage matters. While Meghan’s article, perhaps inevitably, received a mixed response, some of the coverage of her husband’s intervention was more openly hostile. The Sun called it “a very woke promotional video” while even the ardently royalist Express featured a “behaviour expert” opining that the prince was “still … playing catchup in terms of intellect”.

Tangling himself in preachy language about “doing not saying” from the comfort of an LA mansion was an obvious clanger, says James Brooke, the managing director of Rooster PR, and shows how the Sussexes are still “floundering” when it comes to their communications. “The mistakes they are making are pretty basic. None of this is rocket science.

“I actually think [both brothers] are genuinely trying to do what they feel is right for causes that are close to their hearts.

“But what’s clear from this week is that there is no conversation between their comms teams, which is really unfortunate. It probably is an indication of how deep the issues do run now between them.”