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How the Kate photo saga ballooned into a crisis

Editor’s Note: here. New York CNN  —  Kensington Palace isn’t just the home of the Prince and Princess of Wales. It is a carefully managed brand under the parent company of the British Monarchy, which has a millennium of practice spinning a good yarn. That’s partly why so many people find the palace’s PR strategy around the Case of the Missing Princess hard to comprehend. See here: Public speculation over Kate’s whereabouts and health has ballooned into a social media frenzy of conspiracy theories and memes. Kensington Palace’s attempts to quell that speculation have only made it worse at times – particularly, after it released a Mother’s Day image on March 10 (the Brits do Mother’s Day early), showing the princess and her three children in a photo they say was taken by Prince William that same week. This was supposed to be the photo that put the growing rumors to bed — definitive proof that all is well in the House of Windsor. Instead, it turned everyone with an internet connection into an armchair Photoshop expert and badly damaged the palace’s credibility. Just hours after it was released, major photo agencies issued “kill notices,” after finding that the image had been manipulated by the source. The princess later acknowledged that she had edited some parts of the photo, “like many amateur photographers” do from time to time. “It’s as if they’re deliberately making things worse just to keep Meghan out of the news,” said Eric Soufer, a longtime crisis comms professional in New York (who was referring, of course, to the Duchess of Sussex, formerly Meghan Markle.) It all started going wrong early this year with what many PR experts see as a classic mistake: saying nothing. When gossip about Kate’s health started in January, the palace didn’t feel the need to bat down rumors. Kate had an unspecified abdominal surgery and wouldn’t be resuming her public duties until “after Easter,” it said. The message at the time was, more or less, can everyone please just give the future queen some privacy?  And for most people, the answer was yes. A lot of folks outside the UK might not have even heard there was anything fishy going on with the royals, other than the usual simmering drama of a family operating under a relentless media gaze. Prince of Wales/Kensington Palace/AP video Related video ‘Katespiracies’ rise following doctored photo of the Princess of Wales Then there were the photos, which set the internet on fire with the kind of old-fashioned social media chatter that we haven’t seen since the Dress Discourse of 2015. Given Kate’s popularity, my CNN colleagues wrote, “every inch of it was meticulously scrutinized and eagle-eyed royal-watchers quickly questioned the absence of either her wedding or engagement ring and the lush greenery in the background despite the currently bitter March temperatures.” The following day, the official Kensington Palace X account released a statement from Kate, who apologized for any confusion created by her photo editing “experiment.” With that one photo, though, Kensington Palace wrecked its credibility with the press and much of the public. It was a “Keep Calm and Carry On” comms strategy that’s worked for the palace before. But without more details from royal spokespeople, the internet did what the internet does best: Take mostly harmless internet chatter and amplify it until it goes viral. Media organizations, including CNN, are now reviewing all handout photos previously provided by the palace. This week, Getty Images said it found another official photograph that was digitally manipulated. A CNN analysis found potential alterations in as many as 19 places. The photo scandal also raised questions about the circumstances in which the media should be accepting and scrutinizing handout photos – from any source – particularly in the age of AI and easy photo editing. Media, including CNN, frequently disseminate photos from government officials and other sources to bring audiences images taken behind closed doors – think the famous Situation Room photo from 2011 of President Barack Obama and his advisers during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. But the Kate photo scandal illustrates how even professional photojournalists have to constantly update and challenge their processes. Once upon a time, it might have been easier to a) get away with doctoring images and b) rebuild your trust with journalists when you drop the ball. But in the era of TikTok and YouTube, cleaning up your PR mess is a lot harder. The hordes of royal gossipers are not letting up, even after new images of Kate emerged on Tuesday. The Sun/MEGA video Related video Princess of Wales seen out for the first time since surgery In a video published by the British tabloid The Sun, Kate appears healthy walking alongside her husband at a “farm shop” on Saturday. Fans drew a sigh of relief. But the cynical crowd instantly began accusing the palace of deception. That’s “Fake Kate,” as one TikTok user claimed. “Look at the height differential!” The top comment on that post reads: “Listen girl my tin foil hat is ON and I’m with you.” Another quipped: “I think you’re insane, and yet I trust you entirely.” All of this is, of course, mostly harmless internet chatter. But the persistence of the conspiracies speaks to how badly the palace has lost control of the narrative. Keeping calm and carrying on, under the circumstances, now looks more like keeping quiet and hoping everyone will look the other way.