PR Failure #34: The Crown’s Communications Crisis

The British royal family’s PR strategy has long been “never complain, never explain” when it came to how they behaved in public and what news was released. This approach arguably worked in the past—it was the standard for most of Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign. However, the practice started showing itself inadequate in the 1990s with King Charles and Princess Diana’s divorce and even more after Diana’s death. Additional cracks have appeared in later years with subsequent situations (Prince Andrew’s mortifying BBC News interview in 2019, Harry and Meghan’s various decisions and revelations, etc.).

But let’s look at the most recent royal failure: #KateGate.

As society shifts and new generations emerge, silence is a bad strategy. Social media delivered significant change for generations who were raised on instant access to information (and misinformation). Without getting into who is due what between the British taxpayers and the monarchy, or any public figure and the public, let’s consider this purely from a PR perspective and examine how the royal communications machine failed to protect Kate’s privacy (their probable aim) and failed to communicate effectively (their possible aim).

1. A Series of Absentminded Statements

Before Kate’s “disappearance,” she had been highly visible in the performance of her various duties. Yet during a typically busy time for working royals, the public saw and heard nothing of the Princess from December 25, 2023 to January 17, 2024. On that latter date, Kensington Palace announced she underwent a “planned abdominal surgery,” which would mean an absence from her duties “until after Easter.” Updates within the two months would only be provided when there was “significant new information to share.”


The media and public accepted this small snippet of info initially, but given Kate is the future queen of England, speculation soon began to bubble.

The palace stated on January 29th:
“The Princess of Wales has returned home to Windsor to continue her recovery from surgery. She is making good progress.”

Then on February 29th:
“As we have been clear since our initial statement in January, we shall not be providing a running commentary or providing daily updates.”

Lessons Learned

Research firm Forrester has said 71% of consumers “relate to authentic brands” and want to support them. Current culture prizes honesty and accountability, whether from a public figure or a company. Sadly, the British monarchy as a brand almost always has been anything but authentic. And in this case, Kensington Palace waited weeks to put out anything and then left things in relatively vague terms. While again, the desire for privacy (medical privacy in particular) is well understood, the delay and stuffy-bordering-on-snippy statements certainly contributed to conspiracy theories. As time went by, and the responses were shorter and more lacking, things started to spiral. You don’t have to reveal your institution’s (or personal) innermost secrets in excruciating detail, but the more transparent you can be, the greater the chance of your key message being received and believed.

2. An Awkward Silence and Snapshot

We’ve heard about the “Royal Rota,” where stories are planted, and favors are traded between palace communications and British media. Though an alleged palace strategy, if it was being employed here, it only led to additional speculation. If the palace was attempting to seed updates via the Rota, the public would not have it. Then you also have U.S. media printing photos and stories, as with the first spotting of Kate on March 4th. Overseas reporters aren’t beholden to the same set of rules and have nothing to gain by following them. And finally, you have the tactic of providing an update via intentionally released photos on social media—no commentary necessary, just a happy image to tell a tale. But…the editing.

The U.K. Mother’s Day image released on March 10th set off another storm.

Eagle eyes quickly spotted several inconsistencies within the image. This led to the rare removal of the photo from multiple agencies, including Getty, AFP and AP. And then, in a rare move for the royals, Kate made a personal statement. Apologizing personally for the edited photo, Kate didn’t address the core issue that led to an intense examination of the image: her long absence. And the palace refused to issue the unedited photo, which added more fuel given the claim of “minor alterations” made by an “amateur photographer.” Rumors continue to swirl now about that video—and people are speculating about that video and whether AI had a role with its creation?! Nevertheless, the PR saga continues…

Lessons Learned

We now have silence, statements, more silence, and suspicious social shares. The culmination of these is the problem. And what was especially unnecessary about the overly edited photo—it was an unforced error. Yes, the family was probably attempting to eliminate growing controversy by posting a happy, fun-loving image, but sleuths quickly found the multiple places where it was changed. If photo curation is common, which for many it is, doing so at this time to this degree was entirely unnecessary, and significant trust was lost. If there’s nothing to hide, refusing to release the actual unedited photo just seems stubborn.

3. The Authentic Self

On March 22nd, Kate delivered a personal message via video that she had been diagnosed with cancer:

“In January, I underwent major abdominal surgery in London, and at the time, it was thought that my condition was noncancerous. The surgery was successful; however, tests after the operation found cancer had been present. My medical team therefore advised that I should undergo a course of preventative chemotherapy, and I am now in the early stages of that treatment.”

And the tides quickly shifted.

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A post shared by The Prince and Princess of Wales (@princeandprincessofwales)

Was anyone entitled to this information? Probably not, but what we can see here is that a human (who does represent a brand and holds a major position in the fulfillment of that brand) personally sharing a clear communication immediately changed the conversation.

Lessons Learned

What do we owe each other? Debatable. But what can a company, organization, or individual give to another in the name of effective communication to remain relevant? The more honest, transparent, and even vulnerable a message is, the more likely you squash conspiracy theories, build trust, and maintain brand support. And the faster you do this, the easier the overall outcome in the end. Kate spoke from the heart, shared something personally frightening, gave an understandable reason beyond medical privacy (the need to inform her children), and made a connection with many in her audience who have faced (or are facing) the same scary diagnosis. Beyond the words, there were visual cues. Kate delivered the message on her own. She wasn’t accompanied by her husband, which added to its strength. Behind her, was a field of daffodils, which signifies the fight against cancer and Wales’ national flower. In less than two minutes, Kate did everything Kensington Palace failed to do in three months.

I hope to see you online! Until the next blunder, I’d love to hear your comments.

Aaron Blank
President and CEO