Daniela Elser: Meghan Markle’s well-meaning birthday video seems unlikely to help women


Whoever looks after the PR for uber luxury brand Hermes must be having a fabulous day. Overnight, a new video was released by Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex and smack bang in the centre of many shots is none other than one of the brand’s $2445 throw blankets. It is just the sort of money-can’t-buy brand exposure that any marketing executive would trade a precious body part or their annual ticket to Burning Man to snag.

Watching the two-minute video, it’s hard, nigh on impossible, to look away from the oh-so-meticulously art-directed and ruthlessly monochromatic wonder that is meant to be the Sussexes’ shared desk. (Kinda sweet idea though no?) There’s the de rigueur stonking great crystal, the perfect roses, and the matching his and hers to-do trays. (I told you – awww …)

It is also really heartwarming to see Meghan smile for the first time in what seems like several lifetimes.

The whole scene reeks of taste and money, two things that the Sussexes can unabashedly indulge in, now that they aren’t expected to stuff their home with horsey oil paintings and to come over all modest despite their stonking great Coutts bank accounts.

However, where this video veers from charming to eyebrow raising is when we get to the substance of what Meghan was talking about. See, yesterday was her 40th birthday and to mark the occasion she has launched an initiative called “40×40”, which will see 40 celebrities donate 40 minutes of their time to mentor “someone in need”. It is women, Meghan astutely points out, who have “shouldered the brunt” of job losses during the pandemic.

“I believe mentorship is one way to help women regain confidence and rebuild their economic strength,” she writes on she and husband Prince Harry’s Archewell website, hoping that her A-list cadre of mentors will “inspire countless others to give 40 minutes of their time as well”.

On paper, it’s a super idea. As the Duchess points out, tens of millions of women globally are no longer in the workforce in the wake of the pandemic. Here, for the umpteenth time, we have Meghan demonstrating her lifelong commitment to gender equality.

The 40×40 idea is creative, imaginative and epitomises the Sussexes’ hunger to approach their humanitarian work with their own unique spin. (At this point, let’s all agree to politely ignore the inconvenient fact that this sort of thing has been done before. Since 2009, the organisers of Nelson Mandela Day have asked people to spend 67 minutes – one minute for every year of the Nobel prize-winner’s public service – doing something good for the world).

Her heart and crystal collection are clearly in the right place with this project. Where things get dicey is when we get to the nitty gritty.

Meghan’s request for 40 minutes of our time might be really bloody smart but there is no indication of just how or what might be achieved in a one-off session that lasts less time than it takes to watch an episode of Suits.

What this enterprise will do, and has already done, is garner huge amounts of feel-good PR for the couple, something that has been in very, very short supply for them since they decided to spend much of the year using the royal family as their own personal punching bag.

Their, or at least Harry’s, repeated denunciations of The Firm has made the couple into polarising figures, and has seen them come in for repeated drubbings in the press. Meanwhile, public feeling towards the couple in his homeland has toppled off the cliff into negative figures.

Which is why some nice cheerful, fun PR is just the ticket, right about now. Pip pip!

But this is all classic Sussex: Well-intentioned, done with lots of heart and unlikely to actually do or change anything.

Not only the devil but the legacy-making work is in the details.

Which is to say, look beyond the highly stylised video and the chic Archewell website and there just aren’t that many. There are three suggested partner organisations highlighted, which are British and American which does not exactly equate to a blueprint for a “global wave of service”. (Don’t worry, the site does offer users the handy ability to download ready-made social media images and a suggested caption and hashtags).

There is no indication anywhere that 40×40 will be an annual event. There is only the briefest of brief guidelines for how to be a mentor, to find a mentor or even what the dickens should happen when, inspired by Meghan, a first-time mentor meets their enthusiastic mentee. (Trade crystals maybe?)

Meghan’s 40×40 is a lovely idea until it crashes into boring, cold reality.

And this is where Harry and Meghan’s version of good works departs from what has, thanks largely to Diana, Princess of Wales, become the royal standard: Focusing on creating serious, longer term change. One of the many things the late princess pioneered was a vision of royal work that was dedicated to selecting a small handful of causes and then getting stuck in. This model was about affecting serious, long-lasting change and about royal work being a targeted, carefully thought-out endeavour.

Today, William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are following that example to the letter. Over the last few years, William has zeroed in on mental health issues, especially in men, and conservation work. Ditto wife Kate, whose Early Years work saw her, in June this year, launch The Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood at the London School of Economics.

Every time she pops up to announce the latest round of work on this subject it all comes across as so deadly boring that even the most intrepid royal writer is liable to nod off. Sure, it might all make for soporific reading but what Kate is actually doing is amazing work which will tangibly change the lives of an untold number of British kids in the years to come.

And that’s the crux of the sticking point here: William and Kate (and the rest of the royal family) don’t focus on short term wins or snagging shiny headlines or on launching things that will guarantee a 24-48-hour horizon of glowing media coverage. Instead, they consolidate their impact by focusing on generation-long projects that will move the dial in a very real manner on their chosen causes.

Harry and Meghan don’t. (Or at least, so far have not).

Instead the Sussexes seem to trip from issue to issue and from novel philanthropic idea to novel philanthropic idea. Their zeal and enthusiasm to change the world is all too apparent and absolutely laudable – but there is a certain hyperactive quality to their work.

There does not seem to be any sort of master plan guiding them beyond a forgotten whiteboard stuffed in a room somewhere in their Montecito mansion with “Change the world” scribbled in marker pen and surrounded by love hearts.

Over the last 18 months they have (and this is by no means an exhaustive list): Supported Los Angeles’ Project Angel Food; launched partnerships with the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, the Centre for Humane Technology, the Loveland Foundation which supports mental health and resources for black women and girls, the UCLA Centre for Critical Internet Inquiry and World Central Kitchen; repeatedly spoken out about mental health including being interviewed for the Teenager Therapy podcast; spoken and written about the need for social media reform; supported the Facebook boycott organised by Stop Hate For Profit; taken part in the Girl Up Leadership summit; championed voting with Gloria Steinem; waded into the US presidential election in a Time100 video; helped at a drive-through event for the charity Baby2Baby; given a high school commencement address; visited Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehab and re-entry program in the world; made a TV series and voiced an elephant documentary; written two op-eds; teamed up with Save the Children, and visited LA’s Preschool Learning Centre to help kids plant flowers in honour of Diana.

All of this cantering from organisation to organisation seems to be done with dizzying, head-spinning eagerness. Harry and Meghan are clearly hungry – oh so very hungry – to make the world a better place but if they would just still and focus for longer than it takes for them to get caught up in their next Big Idea.

After all, they have the perfect desk to do exactly that at, side-by-side, right now.

The only thing limiting how much of a positive impact they can have on the world is their ad hoc, scattergun approach. If only they could just hone in on one or two things at a time and not dash off whenever a brainwave strikes.

And if doing that means buying more crystals? Then so be it. Spend up big. The world needs this.

Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.

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