Princess Kate deserved better from her communications team

The princess of Wales’ PR team may have been trying to protect her, but they ultimately put her in a terrible position, says Rasky Partners’ Justine Griffin.

by Justine Griffin, Rasky Partners

When I received the first media alert that Catherine, princess of Wales, had shared her cancer diagnosis, my reaction was the same as most people around the world: “Oh no! I hope she will be OK.”

This was immediately followed by a reaction that is specific to crisis counselors and reputation management specialists: “What the heck were they thinking?” How could her communications team do this to her? I found myself actually feeling angry after I watched her speak from that park bench. Their failures forced her out there, alone and emotional.

Princess Kate is one of the most recognizable women in the world. At some point, her top communications strategists got in a room, discussed strategy and decided to lie. The word is harsh but it is inescapable. Maybe they — the doctors and later the PR team — knew from the beginning that it was cancer. Maybe the operation was exploratory. Or maybe they tested tissue some time after the operation and were surprised to find cancer, though that is the least likely scenario. In any case, the strong likelihood is that they knew within days of the operation — and they decided to try to keep it secret.

From the beginning, the single piece of information that the spokespeople shared was that her condition was not cancerous. Her surgery was on January 17, about nine weeks ago, and she was released from the hospital almost two weeks later on January 29 — a very long hospitalization.

A reasonable, actually generous, assumption is that her team knew by the time that she was released from the hospital seven weeks ago. Since that time, every single news report included the statement that her condition was noncancerous. They are responsible for every single false report.

I can well imagine that they are close to her and felt upset and protective of her and her beautiful young family. They felt the media glare and the social media insanity was intrusive and wrong. She shouldn’t have to disclose, they likely told themselves. There could be specifics that felt particularly like they should be kept private, the type of cancer among them. Things like rectal or ovarian cancer or colostomy bags are things none of us would want to share or have speculated on, not that I know that any are involved.

There are a few simple truths in reputation management and crisis communications. The first is that, without doubt, the truth will come out. Therefore, if you want to control the narrative, you need to tell the story. Tell it first, tell it fast, tell it all, the axiom goes. Imagine if Princess Kate’s team had done that. The world would have read a statement from the palace, and a rush of support and love would have filled the environment. It would not have ended speculation completely but it would have afforded the royal family some grace.

Instead, they refused to provide any information, citing privacy, and “noncancerous” was the only fact offered. The palace finally released an official photograph on Mother’s Day of Kate with her three children, presumably attempting to quell speculation by showing her looking healthy. (Another PR rule: show; don’t tell). We all know how that went; it was rejected by all major media outlets over concerns of manipulation. That was horribly embarrassing and fed right into conspiracy theorists. The best and perhaps only way to address that concern was for her team to share the original photo to show that the changes were minor and cosmetic. Unfathomably, they refused. By that point, even I was starting to buy into conspiracies.

The speculation raged, and the palace again tried with a casual sighting of the princess at the farmer’s market. But it wasn’t enough. The only way to stop the madness was for Kate to speak, to show us she was OK and to share the truth. So we watched her speak alone from a park bench. She was poised and reassuring.

But she never should have had to do it. It was a clean-up. I found myself near tears watching her — not just because of the news she shared but the position she had been put in at a time when she should be being cared for.

In a final stupid decision, while it was reported to have been filmed on Wednesday, her team issued it on Friday night, the proverbial “take out the trash” hour. Once again, they missed the point. This wasn’t about some failed policy. It was a major health announcement of a beloved figure.

Kate deserved better.

To read this article on PRWeek’s website, click here.