The sound of silence

Written by IMPACT founder and CEO, Nicole Webb

Not another Kate Middleton story I hear you say, but we really wanted to look at the events as they unfolded from a communications perspective (and what we would have done if we were advising a client going through a PR crisis). 

Firstly, let me say – let the poor women recover – she’s had major surgery and has a tough journey ahead of her with further treatment. And who cares if she edited a photo of her and her family for a Mother’s Day socials post – who hasn’t added an effect or a filter to a post, story or reel? 

Where it started to unravel is when Kensington Palace, against a tidal wave of rumours and speculation, released said photo to the baying media.  

The update failed to address the public’s concerns for Kate and the story blew out of all proportion when the image was declared a ‘fraud’ by media and photo agencies.  

There’s a great piece in The Conversation about how news organisations decide whether a photo is too edited. According to its author, Agence France-Presse (AFP) says photos and videos “must not be staged, manipulated or edited to give a misleading or false picture of events”. Getty allows for some minor changes, such as colour adjustment or removal of red eye or of dust from a dirty lens but prohibits “extreme” colour or light adjustments. 

The Australian Press Council (APC) says “a publication using a significantly altered image that purports to illustrate the news should disclose in the caption or in an otherwise prominent position the fact of the alteration…this is not meant to apply to minor changes such as colour enhancing, brightening, cropping, etc, but rather to changes that fundamentally alter the nature of the image or the information communicated by it.” The APC may need to review this Advisory Guideline given it was last updated on January 2018. 

With this context in mind, here are IMPACT’s three key takeaways from this sad media saga. 

Lesson One. Understand the editorial policies of the media and photo agencies you work with. Better still, create your own editorial policy and train your team so they understand what is, and isn’t, acceptable. It probably wouldn’t hurt to audit your existing assets too to make sure they comply in this new world – media are already reviewing previous images shared by the Royal Family. 

Lesson two. This is the big one! In the absence of information, people will fill in the gaps. We see this time and time again, particularly during change (think M&As) or when a company or brand is going through a crisis. The “never complain, never explain” strategy will do you more harm than good.  

As we now know, the photo was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day there was wild speculation about Catherine’s health, the state of her marriage and more. Despite a Kensington Palace statement saying she was “unlikely to return to public duties until after Easter,” her absence resulted in considerable gossip and memes online.  

‘Where is Kate?’ also started around the same time that King Charles was undergoing cancer treatment. Prince William also postponed his duties to look after his family. No doubt the UK public felt as though there was no-one at the helm, thus fuelling the narrative around the future of the Monarchy. 

To put this into even more perspective, on 14 March CNBC reported that since the beginning of the year, 276,000 articles had been written about Catherine – about three times the number of articles written about the U.S. president Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump combined! 

Organisations need to address the issue as soon as it emerges. Even if the situation isn’t clear and you don’t have all the facts – you need to communicate that you’re aware of the problem and that you are gathering information. Silence opens up space for others to control the narrative. 

And your response doesn’t need to be War and Peace – stick with verified facts and avoid ambiguity and speculation. 

Lesson three. Allow the time to make a plan and work through any potential scenarios, keeping in mind the optics. If Kensington Palace had prepared a scenario plan, looking at all the possible developments and the likely consequences, then much of what has taken place could have been avoided. Scenario planning will give you options and allow you to adapt faster if you find yourself on the backfoot. 

So where to from here? 

Following Princess Catherine’s address over the weekend, many of the rumours have been put to rest. However, what is evident is the media’s insatiable need for ‘clicks’ and selling papers. So, while her video buys some reprieve – the question is for how long?  

From a comms perspective, staying in control of the narrative requires frequent factual updates. We can also expect that Kensington Palace will be following photo and editorial guidelines to the letter. 

Anything less or a repeat of the same tactics could result in another PR storm.   

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