What does the media storm over a Royal family photo tell us about PR? 


It was intended as a family photo sending out a message that all was well with the Waleses, writes Lucy Stephens, but the resulting PR has been far from idyllic.  

Never has the cuff of a child’s jumper been under such scrutiny.  

Nor a zipped jacket, nor whether a right hand is sharply in focus, and that’s not even mentioning the absence of any rings.  

Yes, indeed, I am talking about that photo. The family photograph of The Wales family which has resulted in a media storm, frenzied speculation, picture ‘kills’ from major agencies, all topped off with a rare public statement from The Princess of Wales herself, apologising over “doctoring” the image.  

What does all this tell us about PR? How could the situation have been handled better? What lessons can be learned from it? And lastly, amid an awful lot that went wrong, did anything go right?  

A thousand words …  

A picture tells a thousand words, so they say, and this one has definitely sparked far more than that.  

The first PR takeaway from this photo furore is just how much an image will be scrutinised, particularly when it is of very, very famous people such as members of The Royal Family.  

That scrutiny will be especially intense given the background: The Princess of Wales has been in hospital for abdominal surgery, after which she has understandably taken a back seat in public life while she recovers. Her father-in-law, The King, is being treated for cancer.  

This is a woman in whose whole life millions of people around the world are fiercely interested, which is why a family portrait issued on Mother’s Day had quite a few ‘jobs’ it needed to perform.  

As my colleague Simon Burch is fond of saying, it had some ‘heavy lifting’ to do.  

The two main functions were these: that picture had to tell a story about a happy family in harmony enjoying Mother’s Day. It had to tell us that The Princess of Wales was recovering well.  

The beautiful smiles and the choice of sensible country-suitable clothing definitely did a lot of this work.  

But the first thing that many people noticed at once about this photo was that The Princess of Wales was not wearing her wedding ring.  

Nothing so unusual about that, you might say – lots of people don’t wear their rings around the house. And you would have had to remove them when undergoing surgery too.  

But it highlights the first PR lesson from this debacle: when taking photos, detail is of the utmost importance, especially if the picture is being taken in order to provide a positive update following a period of speculation.  

Consider the story: in this case, the lack of a wedding ring is likely to fuel speculation – the very last thing that was probably intended.  

Apply this to your client – are you taking a picture after there has been negative press, or a period of speculation? Think carefully about every detail of a photo before you issue it. Is your client about to announce job losses? That pile of CVs clearly visible on a desk in the office is probably not the message you want to be sending out. Do you know that there is about to be a negative inspection report about your client’s restaurant? Make sure any photos you issue show squeaky clean surfaces with not a mark on a surface anywhere.  

The dangers of cutting out professionals 

When you book a professional photographer to do an important job like this, a lot of their work is in ‘setting up’ an image so that it doesn’t show anything that the client would not want.  

Very often this will involve thinking of a thousand things that may not have occurred to the client – but that a pro, having been down the same route before, will know are pitfalls.  

Like, for example, the absence of a ring.  

It’s the same with PR. A great PR will have experience in what to include in any photography, and what very much to avoid.  

Manipulating images 

With great clarity and presence of mind, The Princess of Wales has freely admitted that the image put out by The Royal Family had been doctored.  

But why is this a problem? Surely in this age of technical wizardry, anything goes, right?  

It is perhaps precisely because we are in an age of technical wizardry that anything very much does not go, when it comes to images.  

PR is about highlighting the most positive side of your client’s organisation, whether that’s a charity, a school, or a business. Done right, it shines a light on the best bits.  

The difference between PR and marketing is that PR is about getting third party endorsement for your brand via the media: newspapers, TV, radio, nationals, websites, blogs and magazines.  

To do that, we must remain honest. A doctored image may seem innocent, but it’s still tarnishing the truth. Once discovered, it damages our trust.  

This area is clearly a huge minefield. Consider the world of ‘set-up’ celebrity shopping shots that are intended to look as though they are capturing people enjoying downtime with their partner – but in reality involve studio lights and the rich and famous looking ultra glam. (hint: when you next see a celebrity beach shot, check out whether there are any shadows on that sand. None? Studio lighting may have been involved).  

A doctored image, an edited image, tells us that what we are seeing is not necessarily real. And in this world of AI and computers, that makes us feel very undermined as human beings.  

We might be very pleased with ourselves that we can ‘flip’ an image – but just watch out for things like, for example, wedding rings. They might just end up on the wrong finger. Personally, I’m mildly obsessed with people who are left-handed. Once I know that a famous actor writes with their left hand, if I see a picture of them writing (or – as with the famously left-handed Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney, playing the guitar) right-handed then I’ll know at once it has been flipped (I never have, by the way).  

Crisis? Head it off with a simple apology 

To my mind, the thing that has gone well in all of this is that The Princess of Wales – who seems to me to be a person with enormous dignity – issued a very nicely written personal apology for having edited the image.  

It comes across, as does everything she does and says, as elegant, and authentic.  

And that’s a big piece of advice when undertaking any PR exercise. Not everything in life is a bed of roses. Sometimes things do go wrong. You can’t always expect negative stories won’t come out. If your company is announcing 2,000 job losses, you probably can’t hide.  

If there is a crisis on the horizon, and there is no getting away from the media storm that’s coming your way, the best thing is very often to say something, rather than nothing. It doesn’t have to be a lot – but saying something is a great way of taking the sting out of the tale.  

We all understand this in our communications with each other. What often makes us angry about bad service in a restaurant, for example, or a delayed train, is not so much what happened as that we weren’t communicated with in an honest way, or even at all.  

It’s that acknowledgement that counts. In issuing her apology, The Princess of Wales has successfully diffused a large amount of the storm that erupted around that photograph.  

As I said earlier, a picture can tell a thousand words.  

It’s telling the right ones that makes it count.  

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