The School that Made a Monarch
From a portrait of the King in Marmite to a sand sculpture of Buckingham Palace, brands tried various tactics to cut through the wall-to-wall Coronation coverage.
For SPEY, our task was slightly different. We represent an iconic Scottish independent school Gordonstoun, immortalised in a plotline in the first series of Netflix’s The Crown as the school King Charles famously attended.
It is no secret that the 13 year old prince did not want to go to a distant boarding school but Netflix’s plot line not only dramatised his arrival, it twisted it into something completely unrecognisable to reality. King Charles himself has spoken about the positive influence Gordonstoun had on him, from expeditions into the Scottish wilderness to developing a love of music and drama.
With the Coronation approaching, we knew attention would once again focus on the school as the media prepared features about ‘the making of the man’. Our strategy was as follows:
To raid the archives for historical gems.
To maximise opportunities to show the school’s true character and warmth.
To minimise the number of media outlets who repeated old cliches.
To maintain a respectful tone as well as protecting the King’s privacy.
To have a sense of humour, because Gordonstoun is lots of fun.
Timing was key. We needed to carefully place articles in target media in the weeks leading up to the Coronation when there was an appetite for stories but we weren’t fighting a flood. Also authenticity was key - we had to offer a range of primary sources which gave an insight into the real school King Charles attended.
For a school with so many famous former pupils, Gordonstoun is refreshingly modest about its archives. There is no glass cabinet containing memorabilia, instead the Heads of Marketing and Social Media went hunting through boarding house cupboards and, sure enough, this unearthed a never-seen-before photo of King Charles with his housemates. This was offered to a BBC documentary team in April and released more widely after their broadcast.
We knew the media were constructing background pieces and they were taken aback when we reached out with an invitation to visit, offering to show them the King’s old bedroom, still containing his original desk and drawers. Journalists loved this glimpse into the King’s life - for Gordonstoun it was an opportunity to directly challenge the Netflix dramatisation of a cold dormitory with snow blowing through the window. The reality was that King Charles’ boarding house was fairly new at the time of his arrival, with all the mod cons like central heating.
Not only that, we offered visiting media a smorgasbord of filming opportunities. Perhaps they would like to film students volunteering their time for HM Coastguard, just as the King himself did at school? Or maybe they would like to see them preparing for expeditions, which gave the Prince his love of nature? Or watch drama rehearsals (Prince Charles was a talented actor). Behind the scenes we had these various show-and-tell tours well rehearsed, ready to be pulled off the shelf at short notice to demonstrate the experiences King Charles enjoyed and how this shaped his character. This was not the ‘harsh’ and ‘disciplinarian’ school journalists expected. The resulting reports were published by media ranging from Reuters to the Daily Telegraph.
Not everything went to plan, of course. One mainstream broadcaster sent a producer and a camera crew but little of their filming made it into the final edit. The correspondent, who never visited, preferred to stick to the old cliches. However, those who did come wrote markedly more balanced stories. The Principal gamely offered the Daily Telegraph correspondent £150 if he could find the source of King Charles’ often-quoted description of Gordonstoun as ‘Colditz in Kilts’ - he couldn’t.
Finally, there was the fun. Our suggestion that the Junior School hold a re-enactment of the Coronation was not only acted upon but transformed with gusto. Despite taking place less than 24 hours before the real event, the cute photo of six year old ‘King Hamish’ and ‘Queen Jessica’ in a pony and carriage made it into Pictures of the Day on BBC Online and was distributed by PA. As well as this, the Refectory team dug out old 1960’s menus which included culinary delights such as ‘Dead Man’s Leg pudding’ (sponge pudding with raisins). We reached an international audience by placing this with the Huffington Post.
Our quest for balanced reporting is still ongoing but our tactics paid off. In the space of a month we earned more than 40 pieces of positive coverage, reaching an estimated audience of 4 million viewers and listeners (source: Cision). Our strategy wouldn’t have worked without the entire school community (staff, students, parents and alumni) pulling together, being willing to take risks and taking an idea and running with it. Since the Coronation, a whole new generation are watching The Crown but, as someone once said, ‘recollections may vary’. Gordontoun’s recollections of a shy boy who blossomed are finally being recognised.
Written by Eleanor Bradford, PR Partner at SPEY
Psychology & PR: A Perfect Pairing
In today's fast-paced media landscape, where relationships between brands and consumers are increasingly complicated, having the ability to read between lines and anticipate reactions is crucial. Which is why our very own PR associate, Brandon Pugh attributes his successes within this industry to possessing such skillset acquired from his years at university studying psychology. Read what he has to say...