Whatever we are now being led to believe or not to believe about the McCanns, one thing is sure – the level of success achieved by their PR adviser, Justine McGuinness, is now being analysed from a new perspective. Her clients have to face a cruel new reality as recent events have begun to turn media opinion.
Over the past two months, the campaign to find Madeleine McCann has been brilliantly masterminded by Ms McGuinness, a 37-year-old former Liberal Democrat parliamentary
Prior to Ms McGuinness’s arrival in Portugal, the McCanns’ media relations were handled by a team from the British government. To help the family cope with the enormous level of interest, Sheree Dodd, a former tabloid journalist, was dispatched to Portugal by the Foreign Office. Then Clarence Mitchell, an ex-BBC news presenter, became the voice of the McCanns.
With the foundations in place, the strategy was simple – keep the family and their missing daughter in the public eye and be proactive in keeping the story running.
This plan now faces a massive challenge as the tables have started to turn. Initially effective, the PR machine was relentlessly emotional. Spectators witnessed the daily photo opportunities, the finely tuned soundbites and deft PR choreography. The cast of characters has had a constant presence in the press, on the radio and TV and as a blog recording the progress of the search for Madeleine.
TV and newspaper interviews with both parents were augmented by photo opportunities as well as trips around Europe in search of Madeleine, visits to Rome to see the Pope, a journey to Washington DC, and the backing of celebrities including David Beckham. The frantic search generated a war chest of cash from millions of people who felt a connection with the story of a family in torment. This huge wave of publicity was reminiscent of a Hollywood movie launch or presidential election campaign.
Now there will be no hiding place, no escape route, just the burning scrutiny of the media as they hunt for a denouement. The PR behemoth is spiralling out of control, not helped by the right of access that the media feels it has over the McCanns. Keeping press intrusion back as well as finding a working relationship with many of the correspondents who have followed the story from the beginning will test the PR machine.
Pleas for privacy will be ignored. The cynicism of the media still surprises wizened old PR soldiers. As Kate McCann’s “arguido” status was announced on Friday, the weekend media published second-hand theories in abundance, all sympathetically deposited by third parties.
I hope that Ms McGuinness warned the McCanns that the price of using the media was high. After allowing so much of their lives to be on show, it is now very hard to ask for privacy. They are public property rather like entertainment celebrities. We own them and there is no escape.
The British public has always been absorbed by whodunnits, and the McCanns’ story has now become like a real-life CSI episode – we are all consumed by the plot twists. Ultimately the brutal lesson is that this particular narrative requires one exact outcome for the media – the return of Madeleine, dead or alivecandidate, who was selected via a headhunter.