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What the royal family doesn't understand about PR in 2024

The Duchess of Cambridge walks around Ballymena, Northern Ireland on February 28, 2019. She has recently disappeared from the public eye after having abdominal surgery.
Charles McQuillan
Getty Images
The Duchess of Cambridge walks around Ballymena, Northern Ireland on February 28, 2019. She has recently disappeared from the public eye after having abdominal surgery.

Let me get this out of the way right now: I have yet to see anything that has persuaded me that anything is "going on" with Kate Middleton other than what the palace originally said: She had abdominal surgery, the recovery is involved enough that she needs months away from her work, and that's the story.

But the absolute clown show that has been the palace's handling of spiraling speculation about her has made the whole thing worse and underscored that whatever command they once had over "controlling the narrative" has deserted them. I'm not sure they have a Kate problem, but I think they have a massive, pressing comms problem. There are several foundational pieces of advice about the current media environment that the palace — "the firm," as we've now heard it called so often — either does not understand or has not accounted for.

You will not stop Reddit and TikTok from speculating, so do not try.

The term "conspiracy theory" is overused at this point. A conspiracy theory involves seemingly disconnected parties working in undisclosed tandem to keep something secret. What's more relevant to this story is something I would call recreational conjecture.

"She's dead," "She's missing," "She's in a coma" and "She's planning to get a divorce" are the kinds of things that don't even qualify as rumors, exactly; they are flights of fancy done for entertainment and social interaction. While some ideas like this show up in more traditional media, their multipliers and magnifiers are social spaces like TikTok and Reddit. People in those social spaces who most enthusiastically engage in this do not require supporting evidence for recreational conjecture, nor does factual refutation reliably stop them. Putting out pictures, statements, strategic leaks — there's no point. There is always a way to take a piece of evidence, put it next to your pet theory, and pound it with a hammer until it seems like it fits together. Trying to keep people from speculating on TikTok is like trying to stop it from raining.

Do not feed amphetamines to a dragon you are hoping will fall asleep.

It is impossible to stop recreational conjecture in its tracks. It is possible, however, not to spur it on. The release of the Mother's Day photo is the most obvious misstep in this entire debacle. In retrospect, it's just a mom and her kids — they didn't say it was a photo from right now. They didn't say it was meant as some kind of proof of life. But it should have been clear to any clever PR person that it would be taken that way and closely scrutinized.

It's too late in the game to pretend that a nice photo is just a nice photo. That cycle of speculate-and-post, speculate-and-post-again, thrives on new "evidence." That means the best thing to say is nothing. Keep repeating: we told you she was having surgery and wouldn't be working in public until Easter. We told you she was having surgery and wouldn't be working in public until Easter. We told you ... you see what I mean? Yes, the speculation rages, and yes, it's terrible, and yes, it probably really hurts. But if the reason people are so curious is that they haven't seen her recently, and if you aren't going to change that fact, the best you can do is deprive the cycle of oxygen — at least oxygen that comes from you.

People are bored out there.

Look, internet "sleuths" can be a real problem. They have misidentified people as having committed terrible crimes. They have screwed with people's lives. But there's another category of people relevant to this story: the bored basics who may not be into sleuthing, but they know what Photoshop disasters look like. They've been looking at YouTube videos, Tumblr accounts and the r/PhotoshopFails subreddit for ages. It's been 35 years since Oprah's head was depicted on Ann-Margret's body on the cover of TV Guide. People are onto this stuff, and the current roiling debates about AI have only fed these media-authenticity hobbyists.

It would be one thing if the Mother's Day photo had taken highly advanced forensic examination for people to determine that it had been substantially manipulated. It did not. This was an easy one. People have time. They're out there analyzing the reliability of eye shadow swatches. They're out there examining how people on Instagram make themselves seem rich. If you put a pretty obviously (and clumsily) edited photo out, people will look at it extremely carefully, especially if there is already wild speculation swirling out there. This was very, very, very easy to see coming.

As a story evolves, your strategy has to evolve, too.

Think of it like this: The more you are already being questioned about hiding the truth, the more definitively anything you release must clarify what the truth is, or else it's not worth putting it out at all. That's why the photo of her in the car with William — again a photo of her as far as anyone knows! — will not help and will make everything worse. Does that look like the shape of her face? Sure! Does that look like someone who is recovering from surgery and isn't ready to be photographed, which is exactly the story they've been telling from the beginning? Sure!

Prince William and Kate smile following their marriage at Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011.
Chris Jackson / Getty Images
Getty Images
Prince William and Kate smile following their marriage at Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011.

However, will a photo of the back of someone's head slow all this down at this point? Absolutely not! No! I know a lot of people who, like me, initially were inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the most mundane explanation of all this: Surgery can be very taxing, especially abdominal surgery, and the attention on her is so intense that she probably didn't want to be seen until she felt 100% ready. But the more weird stuff happens, the more some people start to wonder what on earth is going on. When you have shaken people's faith in anything you say, just stop talking.

Today's hero is tomorrow's target.

It can feel like the palace effectively managed the public perception of Harry and Meghan (with some help from Harry and Meghan), and by doing so, like they burnished and boosted William and Kate as better and more worthy royals. But it doesn't really work that way. If you have two couples and they are placed in parallel (because the men are brothers — Diana's sons — and because of the splashy weddings), there doesn't have to be one winner and one loser. Everybody can have a turn in the figurative dunk tank, and it's going to be just as awful every time. Gossip abhors a vacuum to a degree nature can only aspire to, so it's a grave mistake to count on gentle treatment just because somebody else received the opposite.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.