Home Top News The Kate Middleton mess should terrify brands on social media

The Kate Middleton mess should terrify brands on social media

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A BIG POWERFUL organization with a carefully manufactured image gets embroiled in a conspiracy theory about one of its most beloved and valuable brand ambassadors. To try to quell the uproar, said organization takes to its social feeds. But when those posts turn out not to be the full story, the conspiracy mushrooms, sparking even more intense scrutiny and mass intrigue.

We are, of course, talking about Kensington Palace’s Kate Middleton crisis (because who isn’t). But the British monarchy is essentially a massive global brand — there’s a reason it’s known as The Firm — and the mess it finds itself in right now should be a warning to any business that thinks it can control its own messaging.

What turned the most casual royal watchers into crazed professional internet sleuths is the now-infamous photo that was posted by the Prince and Princess of Wales’s handle on X (formerly Twitter) on Sunday. The image of Middleton with her three children was meant to quell questions over the health of the princess, who hadn’t been seen in public since December. Instead, the obviously doctored photo only set off more alarm bells. The explanation that Middleton had been the one to alter the image was about as likely as a C-suite executive claiming they had just logged on to the company’s corporate Instagram account to casually touch up a post.

Much of the analysis of the photo and the ensuing uproar focused on how this episode is an early taste of what’s to come as AI and deepfakes feed into our post-truth world. But the erosion of society’s faith in its biggest institutions (including the British crown) started long before such technologies existed. And conspiracy theories, like the ones that have been swirling around the princess’s disappearance, are more likely to take hold when people are looking for some sense of control and certainty when the world’s long-established norms and power structures are in flux.

Recognizing that they can seem out of reach and out of touch, brands have taken to social media to meet their consumers where they are. The younger generation of the royal family has done the same, attempting to show a side of itself that has long been hidden behind all the pomp and circumstance. But when you attempt to regularly engage with an audience in order to come across as accessible, it only amplifies the decision to go silent when things take a turn.

We do not know what’s going on with Middleton, and she has a right to her privacy. But the family has put itself in the uncomfortable position of straddling a space between new and old media, laying out the expectation that it will talk to its followers directly and candidly through X and Instagram. But in this moment of crisis, it has fallen back on the old way of doing business — official releases and explanations that make vague references to “personal matters” and “ private appointments.”

The royal family has learned the hard way what every big company brand should already know: If you’re going to play on social media and court an engaged and active audience, you better know what you’re doing. A sophisticated following will parse your every move and pull apart your every post. It’s dynamic and fun when times are good, but not so much during a crisis. Your audience, however, will expect to hear from you on both occasions. If you stay quiet, they will fill the vacuum with their own TikToks and tweets and Instagram posts. And if you dare lie to them, they will sniff it out immediately, further degrading whatever trust and goodwill you have managed to build.

This episode made me think of my past coverage of the vegan food delivery service Daily Harvest, which is a useful case study of the “live by social media, die by social media” phenomenon. It’s a small company that managed to build an impressive following during the direct-to-consumer boom of the 2010s. But when one of its products sickened hundreds of people, the startup was criticized for taking too long to send out any sort of clear update on Instagram and other platforms, where it was in regular conversation with its customers. Just as social media amplified its brand on the way up, it also amplified its failings and acted as a forum for its very online customer base to share theories (some of them of the conspiratorial variety) of what had made them ill.

In this case, it’s a key brand ambassador who is having the health problems — we just don’t know of what variety or how severe. The “Where’s Kate” crisis has been felt more acutely in large part because of the unusual level of transparency King Charles III has provided into his own health. Why has The Firm been relatively open about the king’s condition while remaining so vague about Middleton’s? It’s likely a function of the way the royals run their press operations, with each couple having their own team. This is akin to every member of the C-Suite running their own communications apparatus — which they often do. But this is a reminder that in times of crisis, a failure to have one overarching strategy will reveal an organization’s internal conflicts and dysfunction to the public.

Social media can be a powerful tool for institutions trying to restore and build trust. But it can just as quickly destroy it. With the photo debacle, the royals have been caught peddling mistruths online in an attempt to quiet the ones spreading about Middleton. The best thing for any brand to do when faced with this kind of crisis of confidence is to tell the truth and own up to its mistakes; the problem is, it will now be that much harder to believe them.


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