Q&A: Colleen Harris, Former Press Secretary to The Royal Family

From Princes to Prime Ministers, over the course of a remarkable career in communications, Colleen Harris has guided some of the world's most sought-after public figures.

Colleen Harris has had one of the more impressive careers in the PR world. How’s this for a resume? She was the former Press Secretary to Princes Charles, William, and Harry, and was the Official Spokesperson at William and Kate’s Royal Wedding, as well as Prince Harry and Meghan Markel’s wedding.

Not too shabby, right?

During her tenure working as the Press Secretary for His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Harris, who was the first Black member of the Royal Household, handled the media for the Crown Prince during some of his most turbulent years, as well as managing the media for the emergence of Princes William and Harry into the public eye.

The Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, June 2013 (WikiCommons)

When she stepped down from her position in 2002, media at the time reported the Prince of Wales as being “stunned” by her departure. For Harris, however, the decision to leave meant that she could spend more time with her own teenaged sons.

Looking back, she told us her time with two of the world’s most famous sons was a joy as well as a challenge.

“One of the joys of my job was developing strategies to introduce Princes William and Harry to the public,” says Harris. “It was an exciting time – Eton, gap years in Chile and Australia, university, landmark birthdays, new friends and interests – all made for challenging relationships with the media.”

Prior to her time with the Royal family, Harris held senior communications positions in the Prime Minister’s Office working with Margaret Thatcher along with a host of others. She also held senior posts in the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, the Cabinet Office, and non-departmental Public Bodies.

Now, with all of that behind her, she devotes her time to Colleen Harris Associates, a UK-based media and communications agency that focuses on personal branding and communications strategies.

We recently spoke with Harris leading up to her keynote speech at the Global PR Summit next month in Seoul. Over the course of our conversation, she talked about managing the turbulent times for Prince Charles, introducing the world to Prince Willam and Harry, her advice to colleagues in PR, and more.


You have worked for the UK government, for the British Royal Family, even with the Elton John Aids Foundation. Looking back, what is the most important PR lesson you have learned in your astonishing career?

Yes, I have been fortunate to work for some fascinating organizations and also to deal with some challenging issues. PR is not an exact science and so there are no hard and fast rules about the best way to handle things.

Every situation is different and the experience you build up over time guides your style and approach. For me, planning is very important. Gaining an understanding of your organization or client is crucial. Analysis and planning are key to developing a good PR plan.

Before joining the Royal Household, you worked for the UK Government and Margaret Thatcher. How did this prepare you for the hard task of managing PR for Prince Charles and Princes William and Harry?

I worked in Government communications under both Conservative and Labour governments. I worked in different departments and for many Ministers, including PM Margaret Thatcher, PM Gordon Brown and DPM John Prescott, dealing with major matters of state from major transport accidents to health issues such as HIV/AIDS to prison breakouts and race riots, shootings, government leaks etc. 

I have been fortunate to work for some fascinating organizations and also to deal with some challenging issues. PR is not an exact science and so there are no hard and fast rules about the best way to handle things.

Alongside that, I was involved in managing the personal profile of Ministers during sensitive personal and family issues.  I guess all of that prepared me for most things, but working for the RF was still a bit different!

For many in PR, working for the British Royal Family is the ultimate dream job. What was the first thought in your mind when you got the job?

I had several interviews before being offered the post by HRH, and was convinced I was not going to be offered the job. I don’t think the penny dropped for several days. I then thought, how am I going to cope with the challenges as a working Mum. I really hadn’t thought it all through properly as I didn’t think I would really get the job.

You started working for the Prince in some very challenging times, right after Princess Diana’s death. Was there ever a moment when you said to yourself- I cannot do this anymore or it is too challenging for me?

As a busy working Mother with two young boys I had that thought several times. It was a difficult time for me as the job was challenging and home life was challenging.

I think the Duchess of Cambridge has brought a fresh look to the RF which is proving popular with the public.

The media’s interest in the RF was intense and exhausting, but I was proud to be part of the team handling these difficult issues and developing different strategies to meet everyone’s needs.

Why do you think the press and the public gave such a hard time to Prince Charles? Do you think that he was maybe vilified by the supporters of the late Princess Diana?

This is a complicated issue that I can’t easily answer here. Part of the problem was that the media didn’t know all the background and still don’t.

Introducing the young princes William and Harry to public life must have been a hard task. What were some of the challenges of working with the young princes?

One of the joys of my job was developing strategies to introduce Princes William and Harry to the public. It was an exciting time – Eton, gap years in Chile and Australia, university, landmark birthdays, new friends and interests – all made for challenging relationships with the media, a public hungry for more information on the young Princes and of course dealing with William and Harry and their personal needs. It was fun!

Looking back on your time at the Royal Household, what do you think was your biggest achievement?

Moving the Prince of Wales from a hated and ridiculed public figure to one respected for his charitable work, seen as a supportive father and able to be with the person he loves.

Many of the former employees of the British Royal Family have written books about their work in the Palace. Are you considering writing one?

Maybe.

It seems that Kate is the new Princess Diana and the ultimate ambassador of the Royal Family.  Although many praise her bringing of normality to the Royal Family, others say that it’s lost its glitter and spark? What are your thoughts?

I think the Duchess of Cambridge has brought a fresh look to the RF which is proving popular with the public.

In my view, the Royal Family has always modernized and adapted to reflect the times. The Victorians were different to the Edwardians and the Elizabethans and different to the Edwardians.

The media’s interest in the RF was intense and exhausting, but I was proud to be part of the team handling these difficult issues and developing different strategies to meet everyone’s needs.

It is right that the Royal Family continue to modernize otherwise they will become irrelevant and completely out of touch with their publics. There is an argument that we lose something of the glitter and sparkle if the Royal Family are ‘normal’.

Getting the balance right is tricky, but I favor a more modern and relevant Royal Family for the 21st century.  A different kind of sparkle that comes from using their position to do important and wonderful things to benefit everyone.

You will be visiting Seoul this coming November to speak at the Global PR Summit Seoul. Can you tell us more about your presentation and your expectations from the event?

I’m excited to be coming to Korea. My experience is largely around personal brand management and I will say something about this in my presentation and about some of the tools we can use to developing good PR for our clients.

Lastly, what is the one advice you would give to your PR colleagues around the world?

PR is a clever and fascinating profession and even after 30 years in the business I still find it a great thrill. I would say enjoy the challenge. Be creative and have fun.

Tickets for the Global PR Summit Seoul are available here.

MORE: Q&A – Mark Tutssel, Executive Chairman of Leo Burnett Worldwide

Kosta Petrov
Kosta Petrov
Along with being the Founder and Managing partner of P World, Kosta Petrov is a Speaker, PR expert on emerging markets, and a bestselling author.

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