The power to fill a room fit for a king, by Max Foster.
I was recently travelling through West Africa with The Prince of Wales on his official tour of the region and lost count with the number of receptions he attended. In each port he would be met by local dignitaries and then continue to a series of gatherings with the great and good of that community.
In Lagos, Nigeria, I spotted the British supermodel Naomi Campbell at drinks in the UK Deputy High Commissioner’s garden. ‘He’s come in to West Africa at perfect timing,’ Campbell told me, ‘because West Africa is on the tip of an explosion in a very positive and great way.’ She was effusive about the Prince’s ability to bring attention to the region.
Royalty has a draw that transient politicians don’t. They are the embodiment of a nation and centuries of family history that litter the history books. There’s an element of untouchable celebrity about them, as if they aren’t real until you’ve actually come face to face with one.
I was in New York in 2013 when Prince Harry was visiting. Prime Minister David Cameron was also in town and they were both due to attend the same trade event. A UK diplomat confided in me how awkward it had been that the media were only interested in Harry’s visit. In the end they made the most of a moment where Harry and Cameron met at the trade fair, avoiding any red faces in Downing Street.
This helps explain why the British Foreign Office foots the bill for international royal tours. The family’s legendary ‘convening power’ is a powerful diplomatic tool for the country.
At the reception in Lagos, there weren’t just celebrities amongst the guests, there were political and business leaders from both countries mingling and connecting in an exclusive environment where the going away gift is an anecdote about the time you met a future king. Even republicans get excited about the prospect and usually take up the invitation. Diplomats draw up the guest list, the palace casts an eye over it and before you know it the British contingent has face-time with the cream of local society which is where those trade and diplomatic ties are sealed.
The most powerful, certainly the most glamourous, example of royal convening power I have witnessed was in Los Angeles in 2011, shortly after the marriage of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. They were on their first major tour together and were easily the most famous couple in the world at that time. Their wedding had been one of the biggest media events in history and Kate Middleton played perfectly to the Hollywood fantasy of a fairy-tale princess.
The reception had been organised by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts to promote UK talent in Hollywood and there had been no shortage of A-list starts and studio bosses to take up the opportunity to ht the red carpet. Nicole Kidman screamed out in support of the Cambridges, ‘I think they are lovely, amazing! They make me smile!’ Inside, she got her picture with them, alongside Tom Hanks and in the background you could see lesser-known Brits hovering but more than grateful for the opportunity to network at such a high level.
Fame is one thing but you need to know how to use it if you want clout. That means steering the conversation towards the cause that you want to promote. Royals have become expert at this. Queen Elizabeth was the monarch who made charity work part of official royal duties. Diana, Princess of Wales pretty much invented the modern form of celebrity activism through her work on landmines and HIV-AIDS.
The most powerful recent example of royal convening power I have seen was in August 2017, on the 30th anniversary of Diana’s death when her adult sons, William and Harry, opened up publicly for the first time about how they had coped with their loss. They wanted to control the narrative but they also wanted to steer it towards something positive, which was their work on reducing the stigma around mental health.
Convening power can also be thought of as cachet which is one of the six characteristics of clout that I write to in my book. You develop yours by working on the other five (cause, credibility, character, conversation and connection) and bringing them up to a level that nobody can compete with. Everyone wants to be at your party.
You could argue that any member of the royal family is born with cachet but each generation also had to retain it for the next.
So, if cachet comes with being at the centre of conversation, then clout comes from being able to steer that conversation towards your cause. Not all famous people have managed it which is why they don’t all have clout.