McCanns need PR not pitbull publicist

The Guardian notes that the parents of Madeleine McCann are seeking a new PR representative following the resignation of their current spokesperson, former Liberal Democrat candidate, Justine McGuinness, who was recruited via headhunters in June.

The rumour is that ex-News of the World and Hello! editor Phil Hall will get involved having been in regular contact with the couple since Madeleine disappeared.

Now running his own PR firm, Mr Hall is understood to be considering taking over media handling, which has escalated since last week when the couple were named officially as suspects in the disappearance of their missing daughter.

Initially, the British government sent support to Portugal – with former tabloid journalist, Sheree Dodd, and ex-BBC news reporter, Clarence Mitchell, assisting the McCanns.

Although the Guardian says a new PR strategy is being sought, it looks like the same old ex-journo media relations approach to me.  I appreciate a lot of people believe having been a journalist is the best training to manage media relations, but this case shows there is a lot more to public opinion and personal reputation than whipping up a media frenzy.

Indeed, the biggest mistake was surely using marketing-like campaign tactics.  Of course, acting swiftly to get Madeleine’s image circulated was essential – but seeking to build grassroots relationships with experts seems to have taken a backseat to setting up websites and generating high profile media stories.

The British public were swift to stick up posters and make donations to a fund – which doesn’t appear to have had a strategy for making best use of the money raised. 

Engaging high profile PR advisors, alongside a legal team, distances the McCanns and weakens public sympathy.  The focus seems to be more about the campaign, and now the parents, rather than on Madeleine herself. 

The public needed to empathise with the McCanns as ordinary parents, admittedly ones who made a terrible mistake in leaving their children alone. Otherwise, it is inevitable criticism was going to develop. Many of the claims you can find online are pretty disturbing and reflect a rush to judgement by many. 

I’m not sure a “big hitter” who will seek to manipulate media headlines is the right strategy at this time.  The donated funds should be used to help organisations throughout Europe who are expert at looking for missing children in order to reassure donors that their money is being spent wisely. 

I believe the McCanns, and the family/friends who have been courting the media, need to step back and stop slating the Portuguese authorities.  Diplomacy rather than generating aggressive media coverage must be a better approach. 

They certainly don’t need a headline hustler repeating the strategy that has fed the British tabloid beast and alienated so many, particularly those who could be useful allies.

What the McCanns really need is public relations in its widest sense – not press agentry or a Pitbull publicist at the gate.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

2 thoughts on “McCanns need PR not pitbull publicist”

  1. I agree that the last kind of PR representative the McCanns should have is someone whose skills focus on the media, rather than building relationhops and reputations. As you say, this is about the parents now, rather than Madeleine.

    I believe the McCanns have been very dignified, that they have alienated many people by their marketing approach, it is unprecendented in this kind of case. It has obviously unnerved the Portugeuse police, who don’t even have a press office, they are not used to being in the public eye. Remember how they stressed that they do not give out information to the press, or even the families, in abductions? Yet now they have deliberately been leaking the most devastating and horrific allegations which I find unbelievable.

    I wonder whether the Portugeuse government is placing pressure on the police to damage the McCann’s reputation because the country’s reputation may have suffered as a result of this case, this is why there has been a considerable, and in my view indefensible, switch in their tactics.

  2. Ellee – like so much viewed via the British media and online prattle, it is very hard to tell. I think we should be as careful about besmirching the Portugeuse government and police as the McCanns. Journalists in both countries (and beyond) know this story is selling newspapers and the distinction between rumour and truth doesn’t seem to be important.

    Disappointing though to see today’s news that the McCann’s response is to engage in an advertising campaign. Although the focus back on Madeleine is important, it reveals again a short-sighted marketing approach.

    I understand entirely how in the face of the current criticisms, the need to control your message – but still believe connecting with grassroots organisations and the real work of finding missing children would be a better approach.

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