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The Kate Middleton Photo Controversy Shows the Royal PR Team Is Out of Its Depth

Catherine, Princess of Wales arrives at the Shaping Us National Symposium at the Design Museum on November 15, 2023 in London, England. Credit - Max Mumby—Indigo/Getty Images

For weeks, rumors have abounded over the whereabouts and overall health of Kate Middleton (more formally known as Catherine, Princess of Wales), who until the publication of a recent paparazzi photo hadn’t been seen in public since attending a Christmas Day church service with family. Kensington Palace—which represents the Prince and Princess of Wales—announced that the royal had undergone a planned abdominal surgery on Jan. 17 and would not return to public duties until after Easter. A drip-feed of information followed: on Feb. 27, the Palace issued a statement that William would unexpectedly pull out of a memorial service for his godfather, the late King Constantine of Greece, due to a “personal matter,” without elaborating further. These moves only intensified the curiosity of the public, which in the absence of new information, began to invent some theories of their own, ranging from the whimsical (perhaps she’s waiting for a disastrous haircut to grow out?) to the absurd (could she be recovering from a Brazilian Butt Lift, or BBL, procedure?).

On Sunday, Kensington Palace released a photo of the Princess of Wales and her children to mark Mother’s Day in Britain—a rather standard affair for the Windsors (who regularly post family photos taken by Kate, an amateur photographer, to mark holidays and special occasions), and one that they perhaps had hoped would quell some of the online concern. But it only did the opposite. Before long, eagle-eyed users began to notice some irregularities that suggested the image had been altered, such as a missing part of her daughter Princess Charlotte’s sleeve and Kate’s mysteriously blurred right hand. Later that day, international news agencies including the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France Press, and Getty all took the rare decision to remove the photo from circulation, citing its apparent manipulation. That Kensington Palace failed to respond by Sunday night only added fuel to the fire. By the time the Palace issued a statement from Kate on Monday morning apologizing for the confusion, which she attributed to her own “experiment with editing,” it appeared to be too late. Despite prompting from many media outlets, the Palace has made it known that they will not be releasing the original image of the princess and her children.

Read More: Kate Middleton Admits to Editing Family Photo After Wires Flagged Manipulation Concerns

“They were obviously keen to dampen speculation and, of course, it’s done the reverse,” Richard Fitzwilliams, a royals expert, tells TIME of the photo. “It’s very embarrassing.” It also, crucially, reflected a failure of the palace’s public-relations team to quell the conspiratorial storm. The photo editing “smacks more of a cack-handed PR job rather than anything particularly sinister,” Fitzwilliams says.

But some online theorists believe otherwise. While fevered speculation and rumor-mongering about the Royal Family is hardly a new phenomenon (just ask the Princess Diana truthers), this latest controversy highlights the role that the internet has in fueling it—and the monarchy public-relations machine’s own inability to keep up with it. As curiosity over Kate’s whereabouts has mounted, the Palace has been forced to issue a handful of statements—which have tended to raise more questions than they’ve answered. The first, made by Kensington Palace on Jan. 29, confirmed that the Princess of Wales had returned to Windsor to continue her recovery from surgery and that “she is making good progress.” Another was made in the form of an on-the-record denial of a Spanish journalist’s claim that Kate was in a medically-induced coma, which an unnamed Kensington Palace spokesperson dubbed “total nonsense.” Similar statements reiterating the Palace’s stated timeline of the princess’ recovery appeared in other outlets, noting that the princess is “doing well.” Most recently, a spokesperson for William told People Magazine that “his focus is on his work and not on social media.”

Read More: A Timeline of Recent Events Involving Kate Middleton and the Royal Family

Longtime royal observers have pointed out how unusual it is for the Royal Family to address rumors in this way. So averse are the royals to responding to any online speculation that when rumors of Queen Elizabeth II’s death began to circulate in Feb. 22, the palace refused to comment on the record, according to former Buzzfeed royal correspondent Ellie Hall, for fear of establishing a precedent. That practice fits within the Royal Family’s long-standing approach to the press: “never complain, never explain.” This rule hasn’t always been applied consistently, however. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle publicly criticized the palace for going out of its way to protect some royals over others in the press.

“‘Never complain, never explain’ was the policy of the late Queen, and of course it worked wonderfully well,” Fitzwilliams says. But the Queen also had another motto: “You have to be seen to be believed.” By pulling back from public view, the country’s future king and queen—who also happen to be the most popular members of the family—violated that cardinal rule. In their absence—and fueled by the Palace’s inadequate explanations—conspiracies have thrived.

While the public tend to treat the British royals more like pandas than people (as the late British author Hilary Mantel famously observed, both are expensive to conserve and ill-suited to the modern world), they are entitled to some level of privacy. And it’s perhaps because the Royal Family has faced a series of health scares in recent months (last month, the palace announced that King Charles III would undergo treatment for an unspecified type of cancer; Sarah, Duchess of York, was also revealed to be diagnosed with malignant melanoma) that more attention is being paid to them than usual. But what has made Kate’s absence more stark is that, unlike Charles, who has continued to make some (albeit limited) public appearances, the Princess of Wales had all but disappeared from view. “Had they [issued] a single instance of a photograph or a message or something, I think it would have been very good,” Fitzwilliams says. “That's the sort of thing people wanted because, as the future queen, they’re naturally concerned.” (And of course, the photograph they ultimately issued has failed to quell rumors.)

How soon the Princess of Wales returns to the public eye and how the palace’s PR machine handles any further speculation about her whereabouts in the interim will ultimately determine how long this current crisis lasts. But if it has underscored anything thus far, it’s that the PR playbook that may have worked for the royal family in the pre-social media age may no longer be fit for purpose now.

Read More: Kate Middleton’s Mother’s Day Pic Is Not the First Royal Family Photo to Come Under Scrutiny

“When she’s back doing royal duties, which will hopefully be after Easter, this will largely be history,” Fitzwilliams says, noting that no exact dates for her return have been articulated. (A statement by the U.K. Ministry of Defense announcing that Kate will attend the annual Trooping the Colour event in London on June 8 has since been removed.) Until then, her absence “stokes all sorts of fears,” Fitzwilliams says, before adding: “Anything you say is not going to influence crazies online.”

Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com.