Royal Scam? Image Management in the Age of AI and Social Media

There have been a ton of articles speculating about Catherine “Kate” Middleton, Princess of Wales’s health.

This started when the Palace announced her abdominal surgery back in January. There were scant updates since then, other than assurances that the surgery went well and she is on the road to recovery.

But on Mother’s Day they posted pictures on social media showing Kate in apparent good health with her family.  The media picked up on this and wrote articles featuring these images, which were quickly outed as fakes.  Soon after, major news organizations took down the pics from their articles.

The whole episode caught my attention, and I  started digging deeper.  It amazed me, the sheer number of articles; not just about this epsiode but covering the tortured history between the royal family and the press. E.g., in this NY Times story, Mark Landler wrote:

Trace back the digitally altered photograph of Catherine, Princess of Wales, and its roots lie in a tragedy of another Princess of Wales, Diana… [her] fatal car accident, after a high-speed pursuit by photographers in Paris, left a lasting imprint on her sons, William and Harry. They grew up vowing not to take part in what they viewed as a pathological relationship between the royal family and the press…

The rise of social media gave this younger generation of royals a way to bypass the tabloids they reviled… where they could post carefully curated news and images of themselves…

But now they are experiencing the darker side of public life in the wild west of the web. Catherine’s photo… has been swept into the maelstrom of rumors and conspiracy theories that have haunted her since she underwent abdominal surgery and receded from the public eye two months ago.

Mark Landler, NY Times

Also, I spoke with our team at Fusion PR about it. Celebrity PR is not necessarily our bag but we do have opinions after all! Many were watching the story closely. Some speculated that there might be something grievously wrong with Kate. One shared articles detailing the long history of celebrity death speculation and press coverage.

I am not a rabid royals watcher, but I do cover stories that have PR implications. I thought it would be good share PR takeaways, and thoughts from our team.

Here are my observations:

  • Scarcity creates buzz – in this case the scarce resource is info about Kate’s health.  Staying silent just fuels speculation and feeds media attention.
  • Media love a scoop, and there are few as juicy as catching a celebrity or brand in the act of spinning its own web.
  • You can try to bypass the media, but there’s a lot to be said for not trying this at home. The episode shows the pitfalls of being too sloppy or contrived in image management.
  • There was no AI involved here.  However it seems obvious that AI can be used as a tool to airbrush and create a reality. PR teams should understand what this means, be ready to do damage control regarding deepfakes, and not use the technology to deceive.

Here are some comments from our team:

Diana Bost said:

  • There’s a growing trend of consumers bypassing actual reporters and news sites/publications to get their news from other consumers. Social platforms like TikTok give users the power to become a reporter without the credentials (as long as they say “alleged” as a disclaimer before spewing their thoughts/opinions/theories). So, while consumers are now craving short form content, they are looking to the wrong places. Getting uninformed or completely off base analyses from nobodies on their couches does not equal facts (yet in some cases they are being seen as such).

Her thoughts regarding AI

  • Also, I think its worth praising the AP on not distributing an image that they detected was altered with AI. I have started to see byline requirements needing confirmation that genAI was not used, too.

Regarding celebrity death reports, Diana shared:

Sophia Meyer said:

  • I think it’s an important detail that their PR team doubled down on the doctored image of her with the kids, and released a statement supposedly from “Kate” saying that she was the one to edit the photo. This just added more fuel to fire – in this day and age, people are getting smarter. We are more skeptical of the media and are less likely to take things at face value. Instead we ask critical questions – why would the princess be playing around with photoshop/AI and then go forth to publish the image – especially considering everything they post must be reviewed by a team first – I mean, they are the royal family. So the statement was a complete PR misstep, and missed opportunity to clear the air and be honest about the doctored image. It only escalated the issue.

Adding to Sophia’s thoughts. Rachel Casaccia said:

  • Even starting from the first photo I think you need to use a consistent tone of voice when publicizing for someone else – everyone calls Kate Kate but she signed her tweets C, now if your going to be casual, be casual and use her nickname- that’s the first thing that tipped me off.
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