As the world discusses a photoshopped sleeve and the privacy of the presumptive future Queen of England — at the very least her whereabouts — I have two observations on the debacle:

  1. Trust is everything.
  2. Leave Photoshop to the experts.

This reminds me of trial by social media. Depp v Heard. Middleton v. Markle. Milk then Tea or Tea then Milk. Cream then Jam or Jam then Cream.

You get the gist.

Whether you think this image or story is newsworthy or not, the underlying issue is about the public’s trust in media and social media. AND the media’s trust in the influencers — whether they are from the government, politics, have celebrity status, or more…Within 13 hours of the now infamous photo being posted on social channels, reputable news outlets (AP and others) removed the image and posted an advisory to not use (kill) the photo.

So what does this mean for PR?

We are living through a global cost-of-living crisis, digital fatigue, continuing wars and crisis across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and climate instability. There are looming elections in the U.S. and the U.K.

Equal shares of Americans (22%) prefer to receive their news equally through outlets and social media when it comes to opinions on an issue. Pew Center for Research studies show that younger Americans are more likely than older Americans to prefer getting news from social media. Adults under 30 prefer to use social media (nearly 40%) over using news outlets for op eds and for live updates (35%), while Americans over 65 prefer news outlets for op eds and live updates.

When it comes to trust in media in the UK, 44% of Britons trust BBC and the 40% trust the FT. Facebook still dominates but people are shifting away from it as news source. Once heralded as a means of democratising our public debate, it has just become a place where negativity prevails and public trust has declined. According to the University of Oxford, despite the political and economic threats facing us, fewer than half of those in a 2024 study report that they are “very or extremely interested in news”, down from 63% in 2017. Some people (36%) avoid the news all together.

This is the new new media.

The Princess of Wales’s private, personal medical issues (and admittedly bizarre related conspiracy theories) have been exacerbated by social media — and shockingly poor handling of PR.

It is widely accepted that X and Facebook are now so toxic that many members of the public have moved to private messaging to have discussions. Content creation is still happening, and it is taking off on TikTok and You Tube. Publishers are upping their game in short-form video to engage next-generation audiences. The benefits that TikTok and YouTube provide outweigh the social and connectivity aspects that Instagram and Facebook/Meta offer.

It should be noted that mainstream journalists often lead conversations around news on X/Twitter and on Facebook, but they struggle to gain traction on Insta, Snap and TikTop, where young people, personalities, and influencers have established a foothold.

According to Reuters and the University of Oxford, the channels publishers plan to invest in include WhatsApp and LinkedIn. Publishers and businesses should be leaning into platforms that provide results and activity. Where are the next-generation of users active? TikTok, WhatsApp, and LinkedIn. We can see that young content creators like Dylan Page on TikTok — who is not a journalist — has more followers and regular views (5m) than the BBC (45K) or New York Times (370K) combined than on mainstream stories and global events.

So who can we trust?

The Edelman Trust Barometer, now in its 24th year, measures and reports on trust across business and foreign governments. It is routinely cited by leading experts – it is relied upon by the Drum, PR Week – and by many leaders in PR and comms — by execs the WEF at Davos. It surveys over 32,000 respondents in 28 countries. In 2022, Richard Edelman signed a contract with the Saudi ministry of culture to provide PR and communications services. Edelman wrote about the “global rift between democracy and autocracy” and still proceeded to take on the country as a client. Edelman, a climate advocate, also supports the Koch Foundation, who has spent billions funding anti-climate action campaigns.

The Edelman Trust Barometer has been established as the gold standard in trust, yet the agency has spent the past year defending its record whilst accepting millions from autocratic regimes and climate deniers.

Authenticity matters

According to the University of Oxford, there are touch points that point to the lack of open participation in social media – divisive events like Brexit Referendum, the Catalan vote, and the 2016 election of Donald Trump. These historic points pushed online participation to closed networks like WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, and Discord. These enable audiences to have private or semi-private conversations in a less public and less toxic arena. Across markets, overall trust in news stands at 40%, while trust in the sources people use themselves is at 46%, which is down by a further 2%.

We all want to trust what we see with our eyes. In order for us to do our jobs, to help each other, to function in society, we must have an awareness and understanding of what is real and what has been altered. Authenticity matters so much to brands and being able to trust not only a press release, image or a post but the organisation it represents is so important and vital to the success of any brand relationship.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, writer and creator or Fleabag once said, “Just remember, if you’re not sure what to do, ask yourself: “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid? What would I write it if I wasn’t afraid? What would I say in this situation if I wasn’t afraid? And then write like you’re not afraid.”

When you put your fear away, you find bravery. You discover or rediscover you authentic self and hopeully never let her go.

And of course, we are all wishing the Princess of Wales a speedy recovery.