Kate Middleton controversy: What's behind royals' 'keep calm and carry on' PR approach

Rumors have swirled online about Kate amid her absence from the public eye.

March 21, 2024, 9:33 AM

While the world speculates on the well-being of Kate, the Princess of Wales, amid her recent absence from the public eye and photo editing controversy, the crisis inside the palace walls appears to be growing.

According to one royal expert, the silence from Kensington Palace, the home of Kate and her husband Prince William, in the midst of scandal has led to the royals' communications team becoming a "laughingstock."

"The palace has just got to get their act together," ABC News royal contributor Robert Jobson said Tuesday on "Good Morning America." "Because really, they're becoming a bit of a laughingstock in terms of [communications]."

The palace has issued only a few limited statements on Kate since she was hospitalized in mid-January for what the palace described at the time as "planned abdominal surgery."

No other details about Kate's condition or the type of surgery she underwent have been released.

In the absence of more updates on or public sightings of Kate beyond two brief outings since her surgery rumors have swirled online about everything from what type of surgery the 42-year-old princess may have undergone to whether her nearly 13-year marriage to William is suffering.

The public frenzy has led to questions and criticism about why the palace is not doing more to quell the rumors.

PHOTO: Prince William, Prince of Wales and Catherine, Princess of Wales attend a ceremonial welcome for The President and the First Lady of the Republic of Korea, Nov. 21, 2023, in London.
Prince William, Prince of Wales and Catherine, Princess of Wales attend a ceremonial welcome for The President and the First Lady of the Republic of Korea, Nov. 21, 2023, in London.
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Like the approach favored by Queen Elizabeth II, the royal family's late matriarch, William and Kate follow in the British royal tradition of keeping calm and carrying on, according to ABC News royal contributor Victoria Murphy.

"I have covered this couple for a long time and one thing I have learned about Kate in particular is that she has a very cool head and a very long-term view," Murphy said. "They are not a couple who tend to make knee-jerk reactions publicly or pander to any kind of frenzy."

At the time of Kate's hospitalization, the palace said Kate would not resume public duties until after Easter, a timeline to which they are holding true, Murphy noted.

"I think from their point of view, they said that Kate would appear after Easter and we are still not at Easter," she said. "There are those who will say that in the short-term, not releasing another image or being seen clearly has allowed things to get out of control. But I think they are sticking to their guns and trying to keep cool heads and carry on with the original plan and focus on her recovery despite the noise around them."

Murphy continued, "It feels difficult right now, but in the long-term, it may prove to be the right move."

A 'small and close-knit' team behind the scenes at Kensington Palace

The palace may be even more inclined to stay the course at this point because earlier this month, what seemed like their attempt to quell the rumors by releasing a photograph of a smiling Kate posing with her three children only made matters worse.

The photograph, taken by William, according to the palace, was later retracted by multiple news agencies over concerns it was "manipulated."

The palace never commented on the photo, while Kate appeared to take the blame for the error.

Kate issued a public apology for the "confusion" caused by the photo, writing on X, "Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing. I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused. I hope everyone celebrating had a very happy Mother's Day."

Murphy noted how "very rare" it is for a member of Britain's royal family to publicly apologize like Kate chose to do.

"Whether someone else suggested that to her or whether she came up with it is not clear, but the fact she did it shows that she was willing to put herself out there personally and not hide behind a vague statement that could have put more of a negative spotlight on her staff," Murphy said. "It was her mistake and she owned it, and I think that says something about her character."

According to Murphy, the apology was likely the result of discussions among what she described as William and Kate's "small and close-knit team" at the palace.

Kensington Palace declined to comment on this story.

In contrast to the public view of a giant public relations machine running the royals' communications strategy, the teams that serve as the voices of the royals are not only small, but also divided among the different family members, according to both Murphy and Jobson.

For instance, the Kensington Palace communications office represents only William and Kate.

When William's brother Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, broke off from Kensington Palace prior to leaving their royal roles in 2020, they had their own communications team at Buckingham Palace.

William's father King Charles III and his wife Queen Camilla have their own communications team at Buckingham Palace.

Unlike Kate's near-complete absence from the public eye during her recovery, Charles has been seen more publicly since revealing in February that he was diagnosed with cancer.

PHOTO: Royals attend church service
King Charles III and Queen Camilla leave after attending a Sunday church service at St Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham, Norfolk, Feb. 18, 2024. (Photo by Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images)
Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images

Without sharing the type of cancer Charles has, Buckingham Palace has given the public glimpses of the king, including showing him reading cards from well-wishers and traveling back and forth to the palace as he continues his official duties behind the scenes.

According to Jobson, the different approaches taken by Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace stem from differences between Charles and William, and the teams they've chosen.

"They have two different press offices, one run by William and one run by the king," he added. "I think that's a mistake that didn't used to happen. Back in the day, when I started [covering the royal family], it was all under one Buckingham Palace spokesman."

Jobson said of Charles' more public approach to his illness, "I think he's got his own advisers and he wanted to go and be as honest as he could."

William's history with Diana informing his present with Kate

Even with a communications team in place, it is ultimately William and Kate who make decisions about how much information is shared with the public, especially when it comes to personal matters like health, according to Murphy.

"I do think William and Kate are very much in the driving seat here over the final result of statements or decisions by the palace," Murphy said. "With the royal family, you do see a situation where, even with their most senior staff, there can be a power imbalance because of who they are and the positions they hold. [The royals] can never not have the top jobs."

She continued, "Couple that with the fact that this situation relates to something in their personal life and something as personal as Kate's health, this is about them making their own decisions based on what is right for them with that in mind."

Likely weighing heavily on their decision-making is the fact that William and Kate, unlike Charles and Camilla, are the parents of three young children, Prince George, 10, Princess Charlotte, 8, and Prince Louis, who will turn 6 in April.

PHOTO: Catherine, Princess of Wales, Prince William with Prince Louis, Prince George and Princess Charlotte attend the Christmas Day service at St Mary Magdalene Church, Dec. 25, 2023 in Sandringham, Norfolk.
Catherine, Princess of Wales, Prince William with Prince Louis, Prince George and Princess Charlotte attend the Christmas Day service at St Mary Magdalene Church, Dec. 25, 2023 in Sandringham, Norfolk.
Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images

William and Kate have purposefully carved out a private life for their family in Windsor, where they now live full-time, that is quite different from the high-profile environment William grew up in as the son of Charles and the late Princess Diana, according to Murphy.

"William grew up seeing his mother hounded by media intrusion and he was always very clear that he would fight not to have the same thing happen to his wife and children, and he has largely been successful," she said. "He and Kate have carved out a life for their family that is totally different to his childhood. In normal times, they go out and about to public places, usually unbothered, and they do things like their own shopping and the school run without having to worry about daily media intrusion."

While paparazzi footage of the Wales family are typically rare, two rare glimpses have emerged during Kate's monthslong absence, including a photo of her in a car with her mom Carole Middleton, and, more recently, a video of Kate shopping with William at a local farm in Windsor.

Given how the online speculation about Kate's well-being has translated into a heightened spotlight on them in their daily lives, William especially may be thinking about his late mother in deciding to stay quiet, Murphy said.

PHOTO: Prince William with Diana, Princess of Wales and Prince Harry on the day he joined Eton in September 1995.
Prince William with Diana, Princess of Wales and Prince Harry on the day he joined Eton in September 1995.
Anwar Hussein/WireImage/Getty Images

William was just 15 years old in 1997 when Diana died following a car crash in a Paris tunnel, during which paparazzi had pursued her.

"I think it would be an exaggeration to say that the pursuit of them by paparazzi right now is the same as it was for Diana, but they are definitely facing more intrusion than they usually get, and coupled with the online hysteria, you can see how it might begin to concern them," Murphy said of William and Kate. "The reality is that preventing his family from being hounded in the way his mother was is paramount to William, and that is always going to remain a priority for him."

Related Topics