How the Kate Middleton PR debacle can help us all in our next crisis

The recent PR crisis at Kensington Palace has left many wondering how it happened and who was responsible. It spurned memes, accusations of body doubles, fake photos, and—most damagingly—questions of trust and honesty. And it isn’t over yet.

Crisis communications expert Sally Branson explains what we can learn from the Palace's failures.

For a firm that spent twenty years planning the Monarch’s funeral, we should expect a better protocol for crisis communications. But the key failure here is old-school crisis management.

This whole saga was perfectly positioned for International attention on one of the most interesting and issues-rich brands in storytelling history. To expect anything less than ongoing and significant interest was naive.

During such personal crises, those involved often need time to come to terms with the best steps forward. For a mother in her prime, the world literally at her feet and in the particular sort of season that is three kids at primary school – a time to reflect and come to terms with a cancer diagnosis is entirely appropriate.

But? This is the royal family – the firm. There is no luxury of reflection. There is though, the luxury of staff and resources to ensure this was well managed. I worked with the Royal Houses and their communications advisors a decade ago and found them extraordinarily professional but working in a profoundly traditional framework. It is a lesson to us all that never complaining and never explaining simply does not work in modern crisis management. Increasingly, it doesn’t matter how much power and influence you have; you can’t dictate public interest. Harry and Meghan have learned this already.

Perhaps the staff were advising the House, but they were so overwhelmed by the events they didn’t listen. But this is where the advice has to be tested and trusted.

Their first statement was clear and set timelines and boundaries, but it did not satisfy the public’s appetite for information. It wasn’t enough. In a crisis, there is no “set and forget.”

As a result, there was an increasing amount of noise and speculation. This should serve as a reminder to all brands and businesses about the noise a vacuum creates. There was no doubt there was an increasing and unmet appetite, and we’ve seen time and time again across brands and corporations in any information delay or vacuum (we’ve seen it in Optus, etc.), noise fills.

There was a stubborn silence. Then came what seemed like a photo opportunity too good to be true – Catherine driven to school pick up by her mother. It was taken by overseas media as not to breach engagement conventions with UK media. Then the issue of a kill order on a gorgeous, but digitally altered photograph.

In any other context, this would have been run of the mill celebrity stuff, but – in an environment of chaos – it took on a whole new life. Again, you can’t afford to set and forget in a crisis. You cannot afford a simple mistake or something that would otherwise be harmless. The context is too important.

Overall, There were just too many roadblocks to the right information. And then there were too many data points to consolidate, especially after a breach at the clinic she was treated at.

Until Princess Catherine’s video message on the weekend.

Currently, there is a slight reprieve; no right thinking or feeling person could deny how effecting the deeply authentic and personal video message from Catherine was.

It was an absolute masterclass in messaging. Although obviously under pressure, Catherine addressed a range of issues, from her marriage to her mindset. The statement and setting perfectly align with what we’ve come to expect from Catherine in past public interactions and her areas of interest and patronage (families and mental health).

A statement to the Commonwealth nations followed up the video message—a clever targeting—of gratitude for love and support. But this? It won’t buy much time, and questions remain unanswered. In our fast-paced and very hungry market, the Palace needs to be strategic about their next messaging and timing.

They need a regular schedule of communications from now on—a set timetable across all their arms of communication. Anything that is too serious or medical needs to come from the Palace. Anything that is needed to engage, inspire or rally? The Prince and Princesses’ social media.

Fashion houses have been made on the back of what Kate wore, and now it’s time for brands and reputations to learn the crisis lessons too.

Get out early with clear, appropriate communication.

Be aware that what you can get away with in BAU, you can’t do in a crisis.

In 2024, it’s very hard to control all data points and vulnerability, so if you don’t tell the story, it’s only a matter of time before someone else has information.

Control your narrative.

When will come the tipping point for brands, reputations and businesses to realise investing in managing a crisis is one of the best spends their business can make?


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