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Tireless PR keeps Madeleine in mind

Original Source: SCOTSMAN: 18 MAY 2007
Fri 18 May 2007

HER image is everywhere and her story has dominated news headlines since 3 May. On television, print, radio and the web, the hunt for toddler Madeleine McCann has captivated the emotions and interest of millions.

But in a world of 24/7 news coverage, even human trauma needs to be properly organised.

The journalists camped in Praia da Luz and the countless news outlets covering the story in the UK and elsewhere have been on the end of a sophisticated news-management machine designed to ensure that, as days pass with no word of Madeleine's whereabouts, the story does not fade.

So far, there has been little risk of that. Every day the story has thrown up a new "line". Questioning of suspects has in the last 48 hours galvanised waiting journalists who anticipated some kind of breakthrough.

But on days when there was little police activity, Kate and Gerry McCann made statements, or family members appeared on their behalf. Relatives appeared to speak to the media in Mr McCann's home town of Glasgow or the family's home county of Leicestershire.

In Glasgow last Friday, a church service dominated evening news bulletins. And again in Glasgow, 50,000 Spanish football fans who gathered for the UEFA cup final on Wednesday night were shown a two-minute film on Madeleine.

The media handling of the story fell to Alex Woolfall from the Bell Pottinger PR group. Set up by Lord Bell - known as Mrs Thatcher's favourite adman for his work for the Conservatives - one of the services Bell Pottinger offers is "crisis management".

The holiday company Mark Warner - owners of the Ocean Club resort from where the four-year-old was taken - already retains one of Bell Pottinger's companies, Resonate, for ordinary PR. But when the scale of the story became apparent, Mr Woolfall, whose job title is "head of issues and crisis management", was immediately sent to Portugal with a support team.

His task there was to shield the family by ensuring a controlled but regular supply of statements and images. The PR company operates the equivalent of a 24-hour newsroom and one of its key roles is to anticipate media needs as well as react to inquiries. It was noticeable that on days when little appeared to be happening in Praia da Luz, the parents would on occasion walk before the cameras without speaking. It sounds a simple detail, but even that is enough to give the cameras fresh picture and enough to update a news bulletin.

A Mark Warner company official told The Scotsman: "Alex Woolfall is very experienced and was a fantastic asset to the family. "What Kate and Gerry wanted to do was to get this on the news agenda and make this as big as possible, so that people don't forget."

Mr Woolfall returned to London on Tuesday, and that night the Foreign and Commonwealth Office installed one of its own press officers as the McCann family's official press contact in Praia da Luz.

Are there dangers in such saturation coverage?

Max Clifford said the reward money of 2.5 million had its own risks. "Massive exposure can be counter-productive. All kinds of people come forward. They will waste a lot of police time," he said. "Inevitably you get a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon."

Last night Sergey Malinka, 22, a Russian computer expert questioned by police and linked to the chief suspect, Robert Murat, said he knew nothing about Madeleine's disappearance.

He added: "Police know better who is the suspect and who is the witness.

"I simply feel hurt by the media describing me as inhuman without asking.

"It has damaged my name and my career. Those responsible will be held to account."

A WEBSITE set up to spread the image of missing Madeleine McCann across Europe has received five million hits in 24 hours.

Revealing details of supporters and the scale of the campaign, Michael Wright, a relative of the McCanns, said: "This is just the start. Each day brings more offers of help."

Speaking outside the McCann family apartment in Praia da Luz, Mr Wright said the family had been overwhelmed with offers of support.

He said a cash fund, formally launched on Wednesday, would be used to pay for the campaign and engage experts both in the area of publicity and the detection process itself.

There has been speculation the family may eventually hire private investigators to conduct inquiries beyond Portugal.

Mr Wright confirmed the scope of the campaign, although primarily aimed at Europe, could also spread across the sea from the Algarve to North Africa.

"Gerry and Kate

have been totally overwhelmed by offers from individuals, small companies, and large multi-national corporations.

"Both are firmly fixed on the campaign which is designed to raise Madeleine's profile and ensure we bring her home." he said.

Mr Wright explained some companies had agreed to include Madeleine's image on every outgoing e-mail while other initiatives included text message campaigns, posters and financial support.


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