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Crisis Comms Expert Princess Kate has fallen on her sword, but where are the gatekeepers?

Deirdre Waldron of Fuzion looks at how the Windsor’s press team should have handled things this week.

LAST UPDATE | 1 hr ago

THE UNITED KINGDOM’s very establishment has been rocked this week, with the speculation as to why a key member of the Royal Family has all but disappeared from public life.

We were told that the wife of future King William, Princess Catherine, or Kate as she’s known, is recovering from major surgery she underwent in January.

So far, so understandable. The woman deserves her privacy.

In the last two weeks, however, the furore over Kate’s whereabouts and well-being has become a runaway train and a lesson in how not to manage communications and press relations. It has spread from Britain via the internet to all corners of the world, culminating in US chatshow hosts ‘spilling the tea’ on what they now deem to be another right Royal scandal.

The initial news about Kate’s operation was understandably taken as fact, but as the weeks went on, internet sleuths decided they weren’t happy with that explanation.

They’ve been asking questions about Kate’s health, whereabouts and whether the Royal Family has been truly honest about everything. Until last weekend, that conversation was mostly confined to social media chatter and water cooler gossip.

And then the photo was released.

In the build up to last weekend, Kate and William issued a pleasant photo via their social media channels of the princess with their three children. Kate and children looked well and happy and wished everyone a Happy Mother’s Day. The couple’s press advisers surely expected that this photo would dampen all the speculation. They were wrong.

Photogate

The image went viral and was circulated to media outlets globally by press photo agencies. It didn’t take long for the multitude of internet sleuths to again start to suspect something was a little ‘off’ with the photo. Cue the streams of ‘this is doctored’ posts online. Again, all were confined to the internet for the most part, but then major photo agencies issued ‘kill notices’ to their clients, instructing them not to use it because the source had ‘manipulated the image’.

This is when global media outlets began to sit up and take the story seriously. It is one thing entirely to have an online community up in arms over a perceived conspiracy theory, nothing new there. It is quite another for professional photo outlets to join the conversation. If this image was tampered with, how could Kensington Palace be trusted in future media matters?

The pressure must have been building significantly by now behind palace doors. We had silence from Royal quarters until a vague tweet supposedly from Kate suggesting she does edit photos herself, but not quite confirming anything:

The short tweet gave very little away, only that it was Kate herself admitting that she had edited/manipulated the photo. It seemed implausible that Kate, a princess with a considerable team behind her, would have been the person doing the editing.

A PR disaster

The fact that Kate has to take the hit single-handedly for this crisis around her Mother’s Day photo in the first place is a major and avoidable failure, not only for her but for her communications team.

We have all been there, wanting a nice family photo to share, with everyone looking into the camera at the same time, smiling. Now with clever editing tools and Artificial Intelligence (AI) we have this at our fingertips. We can create that perfect family photo — in fact, our own design team told me that in Photoshop, which is now believed to have been used to edit Kate’s Mother’s Day photo, there is a “Merge” tool that can create a composite image by selecting the best parts from two or more photographs.

This is fine for most of us, sharing across our social media where we might have a few hundred or a few thousand followers, where we don’t have to factor in the scrutiny of too many viewers or a hungry-for-information press pack.

Where was Kate’s team to advise her not to issue an edited photo when the whole world was watching? A photo, edited in at least 16 places went on to be rejected by all the major news agencies and has caused immense reputational damage for the Royal Family.

a-montage-of-some-of-the-front-pages-of-britains-newspapers-in-london-tuesday-march-12-2024-the-princess-of-wales-has-apologized-for-confusion-caused-by-her-altering-of-a-family-photo-released A montage of some of the front pages of Britain's newspapers, in London, Tuesday, March 12, 2024. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

From the initial statement in January, her communications team allowed a vacuum, at a critical time of crisis for the Royal family — and where there is a vacuum, if you don’t tell your story, someone else will…

Kate’s statement in response to the photo incident escalated the issue even further. How could her team have approved such an ambiguous statement, that doesn’t even confirm that Kate edited that particular photo?

What should her team have done?

When a decision was made to release a photo, her communications team should have secured a trusted professional photographer. When we work with children we strategically work with photographers we know who are great with kids and as a result we get authentic and natural shots in often challenging situations.

Another option would have been to use an unseen candid photo from the summer holidays, something that the family has done in the past, putting it into context by saying it’s a special family memory from the holidays, wishing everyone a Happy Mother’s Day.

Put simply, there should have been better or at least some gatekeeping — it’s hard to imagine a very media-savvy Kate playing around with Photoshop to doctor a photo to post on social media. It’s even harder to imagine the communications team in Buckingham Palace cobbling together such a poor effort in the hope of quelling speculation. Are there any gatekeepers of content published online by representatives from the Royal Family? Surely there wasn’t the need for such hurried amateurishness?

What now?

Following Monday’s statement, the Palace has refused to publish the original photo, so the crisis has escalated even further. People are speculating. Was it taken late last year? Did her sister Pippa stand in for her? What about the missing wedding ring…..????

Her team is creating an even bigger vacuum, which wasn’t helped by the photo of Kate and William in the car this week, with Kate’s face pointing away from the camera.

What would I advise?

In any reputationally damaging situation, it’s important to own it, apologise, right any wrong and move on.

Kate sort of apologised, but more needs to be done here. There are numerous rumours now swirling around that can do untold damage to Brand Royal if not addressed soon. We cannot say if there is any truth to them. If there is, then all the more need for a top communications team to work on your behalf. 

If, however, the reason for Kate’s absence is simply that she’s unwell, unable to be photographed and needs more time to heal, she needs to be more up front. Get ahead of the vacuum. There is no shame in being sick. 

A colleague of mine, Emily, shared a similar scenario with me — Kate’s equivalent in the Norwegian royal family, Mette-Marit, was diagnosed with a lung condition a few years ago and in contrast, was really open about it to the media. She often misses events and is on sick leave for weeks at a time but the transparency around it seems to have worked in her favour.

King Charles being open about his cancer diagnosis garnered a lot of positive sentiment and no one is asking about his lack of presence at key occasions. Unlike Kate, he is being given the space he needs to recover.

It’s time for William and Kate to display a similar openness about Kate’s illness as King Charles has shown, to address the massive vacuum created by not being open from the beginning. They need to jointly apologise for the photo error, which was issued with good intentions, be more open about Kate’s illness and reassure well-wishers that she is on the mend and looking forward to getting back to work after Easter.

Additional reassurance is required, communicating that lessons were learnt, that edited photos will never be issued again and then it will be time to move on…

Deirdre Waldron is a partner with Fuzion and specialises in Strategic and Crisis Communications.

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