Media Relations Lessons from “Kate-Gate,” the Royal PR Crisis

Apr 1, 2024Strategy

In a world where people can seek and spread information with a few scrolls and the click of a button, there’s no such thing as flying under the radar. When a crisis strikes, the public demands answers. They will not stand being deflected or ignored in their pursuit of the truth, and when they aren’t getting it from the people who should be sharing it, rumors will fly

The latest example was the “Kate-gate” saga…the ongoing obsession with answering the question: “Where was Kate Middleton?” 


The Royal Fail: Timeline of Events 

I’ll admit that I fell down the Kate-gate rabbit hole myself. The timeline of events goes something like this: 

December 25, 2023: The Princess of Wales makes her last official public appearance. Around that time (a few days later), there are reports of an ambulance at the location where the family is spending Christmas. 

January 17, 2024: Kensington Palace issues a public statement announcing that Kate was hospitalized the day before for a “planned abdominal surgery.” The palace discloses that the surgery was “successful” and that Kate will remain hospitalized for up to two weeks and is unlikely to resume her public duties until after Easter. No further details about the surgery or her condition are released. The next day, Prince William is photographed leaving the hospital—his only known visit. 

January 29, 2024: Kate is discharged from the hospital to continue her recovery at home. 

In February, things start to go off the rails. William resumes his public duties without Kate. The palace is tight-lipped about her condition, while online speculation about her well-being dominates social media channels like X and TikTok. Some of the speculation extends to the condition of King Charles, who is rumored to be ill. On February 27, 2024, William drops out of a royal engagement due to a “personal matter.” 

Naturally, people want to know what’s going on. It’s here where the timeline of events becomes increasingly bizarre from a media relations perspective. 

On March 4, 2024, Kate is photographed riding in a car with her mother—the public’s first image of her since her surgery. People note that the blurry photo doesn’t look like Kate, prompting her to share a photo of herself on X on March 10, 2024

That should put the rumors to rest, right? Wrong. 

People are quick to notice that the photo appears manipulated. Then, something shocking happens that I have rarely seen in my media relations career: The Associated Press and other reputable publications issue a “kill notice” on the photo. The next day, Kate releases a public apology, claiming she likes to experiment with photo editing and acknowledging that the photo caused confusion. 

However, at this point, any attempt from the Royal Family to control the narrative is too little too late. Distrust in the British Royal Family and Kensington Palace has spread beyond the public to global news agencies. Rumors are spiraling out of control: Kate is dead; King Charles is dead, and the Royal Family is using Kate-gate to distract the public; William had an affair with Rose Hanbury and impregnated her, and on and on. 

A video that appears to be Kate and William smiling and casually walking at a market near their home emerges on March 18, 2024. But by now, people are long past being satisfied by dubious photos and images in the absence of concrete information from Kensington Palace. There are claims that the video appears staged or outdated. 

Finally, on March 22, 2024, we learn the truth. Catherine, Princess of Wales issues a video statement announcing she is undergoing treatment for cancer that was discovered during her “planned surgery.” 

This whole fiasco could have been avoided so easily with a transparent communications strategy.  


Media Relations Advice: Always Control the Message

Any halfway decent crisis management professional knows the truth will always come out one way or another, so the best bet is to get ahead of it as much as possible and control the message. When you do that, you’re in the driver’s seat, and it’s much easier to manage the situation and avoid a PR disaster

I understand and empathize with the need for privacy when it comes to such a personal health diagnosis; however, the reality is that when you’re a public figure, you lose the privilege of privacy to a certain extent. The more you double down on secrecy, the more people are apt to fill in the gaps with false information. Even if Kate didn’t want to be seen on camera initially, she could have, for instance, released an audio message. 


People Want—and Deserve—the Truth 

The term “conspiracy theory” is thrown around in situations like Kate-gate, but I agree with fellow crisis pro Molly McPherson that people genuinely just want transparency and answers—not only from the Royal Family but also from CEOs, politicians, and other public figures. 

Kensington Palace has not, as of this writing, announced when the Princess of Wales will return to making public appearances, and it’s not that important anymore now that the public has heard from Kate and understands the truth of the matter.

Frankly, I’m shocked that the Princess’s public relations team has allowed this situation to take on such a life of its own. The longer they avoided taking control of the message—uncomfortable as the truth might be—the longer they kept the public glued to the story and unable to move on. 

Let Kate-gate be a media relations lesson for everyone that the temporary discomfort it takes to control the message is almost always preferable to allowing the public’s imagination to run wild. 

The best time to discuss your crisis management strategy is before a crisis strikes. Reach out to learn more.