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Can the royal family recover from their Kate Middleton PR crisis? Here’s what one
expert thinks is the way forward

“It’s kind of remarkable how badly this was done,” Northeastern professor Peter Mancusi says about the handling of Middleton’s illness.

Prince William wearing a suit and Princess Kate wearing a red dress and red hat.
The Royal Family can only find their way out of their current PR crisis with transparency said Northeastern professor Peter Mancusi. Chris Jackson/Pool Photo via AP, File

Queen Elizabeth II’s public relations strategy over her 70-year reign was “never complain, never explain.” But Britain’s royal family has taken a different tactic when it comes to the recent drama over the Princess of Wales, one a Northeastern expert said they should reconsider.

There’s been heavy speculation about the well-being of the Princess of Wales, commonly known as Kate Middleton, since Kensington Palace announced on Jan. 17 that she had undergone planned abdominal surgery the day prior and would be hospitalized for 10 to 14 days and absent from public duties until Easter. The intrigue reached a fever pitch on March 10 when wire services retracted the first photo Kensington Palace posted of Middleton and her children since the surgery, saying it was too altered to run.

Middleton apologized, saying it was a result of her experimenting with editing. But many people did not believe the Princess of Wales was editing her own photos, inspiring more conspiracies over Middleton, who hasn’t been seen in public since Christmas. There’s now rumors abound about her current condition, the state of her marriage and the family as a whole.

The only way out of this PR nightmare for the royal family is to embrace transparency, said Peter Mancusi, an associate teaching professor of journalism at Northeastern University and crisis management expert.

“The irony is that the more you resist doing things to answer people’s questions, the more likely it is that that’s what you’ll have to do anyways,” Mancusi said. “The hiding seems excessive and it’s resulting in all these questions. They’ve helped create the obsession of this. … It’s kind of remarkable how badly this was done.”

Headshot of Peter Mancusi.
Peter Mancusi, associate teaching professor of journalism at Northeastern, said the Royal Family bungled their handling of the Princess of Wales’ surgery. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The photo was released after more than a month of speculation about Middleton. People were surprised about the initial announcement and her recovery time. But concern grew as royal watchers also noticed a difference in the palace’s PR strategy around Middleton.

Former Buzzfeed royal correspondent Ellie Hall did an interview with Nieman Lab in which she pointed out there’s a lack of “fluffy, low-stakes” stories about how Middleton is recovering — stories the palace might normally push when a royal is in this position.The palace also began addressing rumors about her condition, something it didn’t do previously. There were no social media posts and no public hospital visits from her family.

In contrast, papers ran photos of Queen Camilla visiting King Charles III when he was in the hospital being treated for an enlarged prostate. After the king announced that he was diagnosed with cancer, there were social media posts of him looking over cards the public sent and he has made some appearances since then.

Mancusi said that while the palace did say Middleton was going to be out until Easter, the information it initially released caused enough concern that people want assurance that Middleton is well, especially given she’s a young mother. People are also aware how much the royal family works with the press since Prince Harry’s revelations in his 2023 memoir, “Spare,” and thus wonder if the palace is involved in the lack of coverage.

“If they do something that they haven’t done before, that’s going to raise questions,” Mancusi said. “(King Charles) is making public appearances and he’s out there, so this just seems odd. There is an obvious difference. She’s entitled to privacy, but she’s the future queen consort. … I don’t think it’s feasible (to be so private) in the 21st century where you have all the social media and a lot of people commenting on what the royals are up to. They can maintain some privacy, but … a lot of people are asking questions.”

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In releasing the photo, Mancusi said the family was likely trying to provide reassurance, but they did not consider one crucial question: What’s the worst that can happen? In this case, the worst did happen: People picked up on the alterations and the fact Middleton was not wearing her wedding ring. 

“The release of that picture was just a bad thing to do,” Mancusi said. “In this world, everything gets vetted within an inch of its life…People are now questioning her relationship with her husband and whether there’s any problems there … it’s the old adage about not digging yourself deeper into the hole that you’ve already dug for yourself. They seem to be doing that.”

This isn’t the first time in recent history that the royal family has found itself in hot water from a PR standpoint. There was then-Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s messy and highly publicized divorce and Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, going on the record about their feelings that the family lied to protect Prince William as the heir.

Mancusi said the family should follow a similar tactic as they did when Princess Diana died. The queen didn’t make a statement about her death for days, causing an uproar that calmed once she addressed the nation. This PR crisis would benefit from a similar approach. A photo or video of Middleton would help ease speculation as would more statements and information on her recovery, Mancusi said, as disclosure helps stories fade.

“Otherwise, it’s going to be a slow-rolling crisis where people are trying to find out more information every day,” Mancusi said. “Simpler is better: She waves out the window, she does a Zoom for 30 seconds. Even the queen in her last year was out and about. People are justifiably wondering what the heck is going on and if I’m the king and trying to set things up for my administration, I don’t want to set it up in a way where people are always suspicious of my motivations and how I’m operating. There’s no brilliant magic bullet. It’s reversing the course in a way that maybe doesn’t answer every question, but satisfies most of the people that need to be satisfied.”

While Mancusi said the monarchy will likely recover from this, whether this storm will pass is dependent on what happens around Easter when Middleton is supposed to return to public duties.

“Then we got a real problem,” Mancusi said. “If something’s really wrong with her, the nation is going to need to know that at some point.”