Updated Mar 13, 2024 - Business

Kate Middleton photo calls royal family's PR strategy into question

Photo illustration of an image of Kate Middleton with a computer dialogue box over it that reads Edit, Transform

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Stephen Pond/Getty Images

A botched photo editing job has captured the world's attention, thrusting conspiracy theories typically reserved for message boards and blind items into the mainstream discourse.

Why it matters: The Royal Family's recent PR blunders show that there's no place for vague communications during the age of social virality and misinformation.

Catchup quick: In January, Kensington Palace released a statement saying the Princess of Wales was taking time off to recover from a planned abdominal surgery and was expected to spend up to two weeks in the hospital to recover.

  • The Palace's communication left the Royal watchers with more questions than answers, which ignited the spread of conspiracy theories online.
  • The masses started to get concerned in February after Prince William failed to attend his godfather's memorial service, citing "personal matters."
  • On Sunday, Kensington Palace released a photo of Kate and her children in honor of UK Mother's Day. But news wires including Getty Images, AFP and the Associated Press quickly issued a kill notice after realizing the image had been doctored.
  • The following day, the Palace issued a statement from Kate apologizing for any "confusion" the family photograph might've caused.

Between the lines: The Royal Family has a "never complain, never explain" policy and instead uses visuals to communicate a specific message or tell a story — which is why this string of missteps is so suspicious.

What they're saying: "The quickest way to lose a story in the middle of a crisis is to not tell a story at all," crisis communication expert Molly McPherson told Axios.

  • "Reasonable people understand the need to withhold information — especially with regards to health. But when there is too much engineering happening to hide that information, people become skeptical and are drawn to get to the bottom of it themselves."

Plus, close royal watchers note that members of the family are far removed from the Palace's comms and public relations efforts, which is why the Princess of Wales taking the blame for the altered photo doesn't pass the smell test.

  • "It would be akin to President Biden handling his own social media posts," said one longtime communication professional.

The big picture: Audiences are more media literate and keen to understand these public relations tactics, and this instance should signal to the Palace that their comms strategies are outdated.

  • "The most interesting moment of change is when institutions assume the old playbook still works, and then find out it doesn't. That's what's happening to Wills and Kate now," says Matt Locke, CEO of UK-based strategic communications firm Storythings.
  • "Queen Elizabeth managed the press extraordinarily well... but the vast majority of her reign was pre internet and social media. Like a lot of old institutions, the royals just haven't developed sustainable playbooks for the digital media age."

What to watch: The reaction to the dodgy statements and misleading photo signals that Kensington Palace's cozy relationships with the media could be souring.

  • Add AI into the mix — which will inevitably enable the spread of more mis- and disinformation — and Kensington Palace could have a real problem on its hands.
  • It's clear they are unable to contain misinformation now, and since they have squandered credibility with the media and the public, it could be more difficult for them to correct misinformation or online speculation in the future.

💭 Eleanor's thought bubble: It's rare to see the palace communicate in such a ham-handed way.

  • Either they are underestimating the savviness of the general public and struggling to keep up with the new media landscape, or they are intentionally being clumsy at the expense of Kate's reputation.

Go deeper ... The British monarchy's guide to visual communications

Go deeper