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Kate Middleton's Photo Controversy Is 'Pretty Damning,' Says U.K. PR Expert (Exclusive)

"It’s not something you'd want the royal brand to be aligned with," London-based PR expert Mark Borkowski tells PEOPLE

<p>IAN VOGLER/POOL/AFP via Getty</p> Kate Middleton visits a children

IAN VOGLER/POOL/AFP via Getty

Kate Middleton visits a children's hospital on Dec. 5, 2023.

Kate Middleton's photo editing controversy is "damning," a top London PR expert tells PEOPLE exclusively.

Over the weekend, photo agencies pulled the Mother's Day image of the Princess of Wales, 42, who is recovering from abdominal surgery, and her children, citing concerns about manipulation. Princess Kate apologized in a personal statement released on Monday, saying, "Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing. I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused."

Mark Borkowski, a London-based public relations and crisis communications expert, tells PEOPLE that in trying to share a new image with the public, the palace hasn't calmed concerns — "in fact, it's made it worse."

"Now some people are asking if it is all generated by AI or is it a Photoshop of a photo taken. It’s not something you'd want the royal brand to be aligned with," he says.

<p>The Prince and Princess of Wales/Instagram</p> Kate Middleton with her children (from left) Prince Louis, Prince George and Princess Charlotte in the controversial photo.

The Prince and Princess of Wales/Instagram

Kate Middleton with her children (from left) Prince Louis, Prince George and Princess Charlotte in the controversial photo.

A palace insider downplayed the PR crisis, telling PEOPLE exclusively that although the situation is a "bump in the road, it's not an earthquake."

"[Kate] has apologized and graciously so," the insider says. "She has done something that 99% of us do — and we don’t have the scrutiny that they do."

"Think of the level of scrutiny of pictures of her, as people pore over them," the insider continues. "You’re always on display and always got to be perfect."

Related: Kate Middleton Apologizes for 'Confusion' Over Family Photo That Caused Controversy

<p>IAN VOGLER/POOL/AFP via Getty</p> Kate Middleton visits a children's hospital on Dec. 5, 2023.

IAN VOGLER/POOL/AFP via Getty

Kate Middleton visits a children's hospital on Dec. 5, 2023.

The insider adds, "She might be a member of the royal family, but she’s also a human being. If you've just had an operation, you want to look your best with the first photograph that’s published for the outside world."

Borkowski points out that while the royal family's policy was "never complain, never explain" during Queen Elizabeth's reign, "The royals have got themselves cornered by giving some level of information but never enough." He adds this "halfway" approach "has resulted in this rather unfortunate photo driving a story where perhaps it would normally be shrugged off."

The photo, shared for Mothering Sunday in the U.K., was significant as the first official image of the Princess of Wales released since her surgery, which took place on Jan. 16. However, Kate was seen for the first time since Christmas on March 4, when photographers snapped her driving in a car with her mom, Carole Middleton.

<p>Chris Jackson/Getty Images</p> Prince William and Kate Middleton in September 2023, four months before Kate's surgery.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Prince William and Kate Middleton in September 2023, four months before Kate's surgery.

The palace insider says, "When you think of last week's paparazzi photo of her and her mother — she doesn't want a photo like that to be the one everyone remembers."

On Monday, hours after Princess Kate's apology was shared on social media, she was seen with Prince William in a car leaving Windsor Castle.

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While Princess Kate's surgery was announced on Jan. 17, the details of the diagnosis were not released. (The palace did confirm that the issue was non-cancerous). The royal left the hospital on Jan. 29 to continue her recovery at home, not expected to return to public duties until after Easter. But without any photos or personal messages from the royal, speculation mounted.

Conspiracy theories surrounding Princess Kate's health heightened when Prince William abruptly pulled out of a scheduled appearance at his godfather King Constantine of Greece's memorial service on Feb. 27.

Borkowski says the royal household has the ability to bounce back after a mistake, but this instance will have far-reaching consequences.

"The difficulty now is because there is so little information about what’s happening to Kate, if they were going to project things are all normal in this way — with a photo that is now deemed to be fake — it is pretty damning about the floundering and the poor decision making that’s going on," he says.

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