Madeleine PR appearance ignites angry minority Media Week Middle East
15 November 2009
DUBAI Late-night phone calls, aggressive emails and even legal threats were received by organisers of the recent PR Congress in Dubai, prior to Clarence Mitchell appearing as a guest speaker.
Mitchell, the PR guru representing the family of missing toddler Madeleine McCann, was in Dubai last week talking about the PR aspects of the case. Conference director Kosta Petrov says over the past two months he has been regularly contacted by individuals, and even a PR agency, opposed to the McCann family. Some who question the McCanns' role in the Maddie case told Petrov that Mitchell should not have been invited.
Petrov says he told the vocal groups Mitchell's appearance was only so he could discuss media aspects of the case.
Mitchell said the protests were not unusual and warned Petrov about them.
In Depth: The media hunt for Maddie Media Week Middle East (page 19)
Clarence Mitchell, official spokesman for Kate and Gerry McCann, tells a Dubai audience how he used PR to battle with the press during the search for their missing daughter.
by PAUL McCLENNAN
15 November 2009
«There were soon debates for and against the McCanns and that needed to be monitored. Where it strayed into libel we took action.»
EVEN BY Clarence Mitchell's own admission, there has never been a search quite like the one launched two-and-a-half years ago for Madeleine McCann. "It was a story that shocked the world," said Clarence Mitchell, as an opening remark to a presentation he gave last week at the PR Congress in Dubai.
Mitchell, a former BBC journalist of 20 years, quit his role as director of media monitoring at the British government's Central Office of Information in September 2007, to handle the McCanns' PR full time.
He was quick to point out to delegates that, "There is no evidence to suggest Madeleine is dead, and until the family know that for sure then we will continue to look for her". Only last week, the McCann's issued new pictures of Maddie to the media, illustrating how her appearance would have changed since she went missing on 3 May 2007 in Portugal.
Mitchell believes Maddie, aged four at the time, is still widely talked about due to the fact her disappearance occurred during the digital age. "Madeleine is the first, and most high-profile, missing child case in the internet era," he said.
Recalling the early days of the Maddie case, Mitchell said, "The Portuguese police thought it suspicious that a government adviser should turn up, but it was only because of all the media attention [that I was appointed]. I remember standing on the balcony counting 42 TV crews from around the world. It was a phenomenal situation which no family could have coped with."
Mitchell said the McCann family then had to endure leaks and rumours which emerged from Portugal, due to a "lack of evidence", surrounding Maddie's disappearance. "Stories were picked up by the British media and were mistranslated. So we had a distortion of the original distortion - it was a complete cycle of lunacy. There were soon debates for and against the McCanns and that needed to be monitored. Where it strayed into libel we took action because it was imperative to set down a marker."
It wasn't long before Mitchell had to call upon his PR skills to help shape the stories that were published about Maddie. "A few months later I needed to get positive messages out into the media and rebuff the lies. We had to challenge the preconceptions - this was done privately with editors. We had to establish our own narrative and key messages," he said.
"Journalists were hounding everyone who knew the McCanns," said Mitchell. "Reporters came to the door every day. For six months there were photographers at the end of the driveway, photographers crawling through hedges looking for them. Journalists wanted material for the 20-day and 50-day anniversaries - it was ridiculous."
"British newspapers did step out of line and we had 108 grossly defamatory headlines from the Express Newspaper's four titles, based on misinformation coming out of Portugal. We received front page apologies and £500,000 damages which went to the search fund. We also had apologies News of the World for printing parts of Kate's diary."
Mitchell and the McCanns still have to be prepared for factually incorrect stories, such as false sightings, appearing in the papers. "We always have to act swiftly against rubbish being disseminated in the media. But if you respect the media they will respect you back. The age of 'no comment' has gone - you have to engage," said Mitchell, who sometimes fields 300 calls a day from journalists around the world writing about the case.
Another challenge he is faced with is releasing fresh information to the media at the right time: "For the first anniversary we had to offer the press something decent to keep the interest going so we did Panorama and Hello!. For the second anniversary Oprah had been chasing us for some time so we worked with her. [The broadcast was televised in 144 countries.] I have 120 interview bids on the table for Kate and Gerry, from their local paper in Leicestershire to Larry King. We have also worked with Al Jazeera because we feel there's a chance Madeleine could be in the north of Africa."
TV appearances were not easy for the McCanns, who were closely scrutinized every time they appeared in front of the television cameras. "The police told them from the outset not to show emotion in interviews because there are cases when kidnappers get satisfaction from seeing the distress they've caused," explained Mitchell. "So Kate and Gerry did this but were then vilified across Portuguese media for being too cold and suspicious. Then when Kate did break down and cry people said she was just crying crocodile tears."
When asked by Media Week how the public viewed PR following Maddie's disappearance, Mitchell said, "I think the public, for various reasons, can be suspicious about PR - they don't see it as necessary and that it's there to hide and confuse. But that is categorically not the case in this instance." He also said that Arabic coverage of the case tended to be neutral.
Mitchell wrapped up the talk by saying he hoped media interest in Maddie would continue. He said, "Any story will have a gradual decline as time goes by but the media is still devoted to covering it [the Maddie case.] We will do what we can to keep it out there and I will continue for as long as Kate and Gerry want me to. But let's hope it all ends tomorrow with a phone call."
in Media Week Middle East, 15 November 09, issue 50 - PDF viewer
with thanks to Nige at The McCann Files