Grâce à la liberté dans les communications, des groupes d’hommes de même nature pourront se réunir et fonder des communautés. Les nations seront dépassées.
Friedrich Nietzsche (Fragments posthumes XIII-883)

16 - Mumbrella CommsCon (Cl. Mitchell)

Timeline de la communication de Clarence Mitchell

0:00    - Introduction by Miranda Ward
4:00   -  Clarence Mitchell takes the stage
5:15     - The case of Madeleine McCann: An exceptional story in a multi-platform environment
10:30  - Public perception
11:44   - The big picture: international police, international media, official leaks, the parents, friends, the governments
14:00  -  Information leaks: the deal, the damage
15:00  -  Blogging – in the wrong hands and with an agenda can do enormous damage
16:00   - Question everything, no matter what, as a journalist would
17:00   - A ‘pool’ is not just something you swim in: sharing information
19:26   - The newsroom and the tidal wave of content
20:55   - Lack of relationships between competing media: 200 to 300 media on-site and more in the UK
22:30   - Going legal: defeating misinformation, lies and gross defamation
23:20   - Keeping the focus on the search not the parents
26:40   - Keeping the British press in line
28:00   - The media pool: A daily soap opera with few checks or balances
29:00   - Journalists pressured to produce stories resulted in false sighting reports
31:00   - Calling on the government for help: Operation Grange, the Scotland Yard inquiry
33:00   - More than 100 articles deemed “grossly defamatory”; the front page apologies, payouts and trust fund
35:00   - Be straight with the media
39:00   - Meeting the Pope
40:00   - Kate McCann’s role for missing children organisations in Britain
42:00   - Media calls for 2017’s 10 year anniversary of Madeleine’s disappearance
44:00   - The battle for hope: cases of women being held against their will
45:00   - Miranda Ward takes stage with Clarence for one-on-one Q&A
49:00   - Audience questions
1:02:15 - Presentation concludes

The man who has kept the disappearance of toddler Madeleine McCann in the news for the past nine years said he managed to do so by looking at the case through the eyes of a journalist. Clarence Mitchell: "It became a daily soap opera". Speaking on the challenges of dealing with what became one of the biggest news stories in the world at the time, Clarence Mitchell revealed to the CommsCon Conference in Sydney, it was “the first big missing child case of the internet age”.

Explaining how he handled the initial issues posed by a press pack of 3-400 international reporters, former BBC reporter Mitchell explained: “I had to look at it as a journalist would – pose the questions a journalist would ask. If you’re half-way to answering those questions you are half-way to getting good coverage.”
After the four-year-old was snatched from her hotel room at a Portuguese resort while her parents dined at a nearby restaurant, Mitchell said it became “like a daily soap opera” as it was “a story that shocked the world and continues to shock”, leading the media to bay for more headlines to feed public interest in the case.

He explained how turf wars developed between local and international press, and how he had had reporters in tears begging for extra information otherwise they ‘would be fired’, leading to stories containing “wild allegations” in the media against parents Kate and Jerry McCann. Mitchell said the family were initially reluctant to go legal for fear of getting the press offside, but have ultimately taken action against several papers in the UK and Portugal, which Mitchell said: “Did set a marker, we were reluctant to go legal, and the British media calmed down and they have been a lot more responsible since then.” Mitchell insists campaign materials are included in every news story about Madeleine

The family has had more than 550,000 pounds in damages paid out to the foundation, which helps to fund the ongoing search for Madeleine. Ultimately Mitchell said his job was to try and bring reporters back to the central message – the hunt for Madeleine – and “not the wider family soap opera which was developing around it”. Asked how he had kept the story, which has had thousands of front page articles around the world, in the public attention, he explained: “We were aware early on there could be a boredom threshold with members of the public – as awful as that sounds. “News desks did start to say they need something different, and that’s where the age-progressed images were important and gave us new hooks to create more interest in it.”

He said he avoided exclusivity with papers as “that would have backfired spectacularly” saying they key was to get as much publicity as possible. “Later on, as the appetite began to wane on a daily basis we had to be a bit more imaginative”, pointing to a segment on the second anniversary on the Oprah Winfrey show which showed how they produce the age-progressed images of Madeleine. He added they also insist on campaign materials being used in every story about Madeleine.

“For something that’s running as an ongoing issue you need everyone on board,” he added.
Explaining how he approached working with journalists, he explained: “A legitimate tier-one journalist, if they have a good relationship with you, will hear you out, it doesn’t mean they will change their story, but they will give you a fair hearing.” He also explained how “there’s too little investigative journalism” as “a lot of news desks have turned into cut-and-paste because of the constant monster of the internet”.

“If I knew the journalists and they knew me and I could say here’s the truth of the situation then they’d give me a fair hearing.” But he warned: “There’s no such thing as ‘off the record’ any more. If you don’t want to see it in print and on the air, don’t say it. “I would ask understanding as to why we couldn’t get into that today, but it will become clear. Or I’d say ‘if you don’t print that today, I’m promising you you will have something better on Friday’. “That worked with media I knew. With the Portuguese media I didn’t know from Adam I had to be more careful.”
Alex Hayes

Interview de Clarence Mitchell par Alex Hayes

Former BBC journalist Clarence Mitchell helped keep the story of the disappearance of three-year-old British child Madeleine McCann in the media for eight years. In this Q&A he discusses the challenges of the case, his career as a journalist and the road to launching his own communications consultancy, Clarence Mitchell Communications.

AH : What was the most challenging part of being the spokesman for the McCann family?
CM : There were constant daily challenges. Hourly, in fact. And at times 24/7 – for the first couple of years. Not least having to correct, rebut or balance very rapidly the initial hostile coverage that the family faced, particularly in Portuguese media.
False stories based on anonymous briefings on one day were then simply repeated internationally the next day before being re-repeated in Portugal on the third day.
UK journalists, especially, were under immense newsdesk pressure to deliver a sensational splash irrespective of the day’s actual events or the truth of something, which meant much of my time was spent dampening down – or stopping altogether – the most lurid, exaggerated or blatantly fabricated headlines.
Hostile UK coverage of the Portuguese police also meant the situation quickly became very nationalistic and highly political, too. Cultural differences added to the mix.
Being an advocate for the family and their friends, defending their reputation and actions and constantly attempting to pull what felt like a daily soap opera back to concentrating purely on the search for Madeleine was the main overall challenge.

AH : How do you go about engaging with media on such a sensitive story as Madeleine McCann’s disappearance?
CM : Whilst it has been and continues to be a highly emotionally-charged situation, I could not, and cannot, afford to be emotional with the media in any way. Tact, sensitivity, understanding and diplomacy were needed from the outset. Not least given the international and cultural differences so publicly at play, quite apart from the core human story of Madeleine’s disappearance itself.
I approached it as a major news story as a news reporter would, with all the dispassionate journalistic demands for immediate information, access and briefings that go with one.
As a former journalist myself it also helped considerably that I knew what journalists, both print and broadcast, would largely want, how they would approach it and when were their individual pressure points, according to their respective deadline rhythms.
It meant I could predict with some certainty what elements of the story they would focus on, how it would play out over any given 24 hour news cycle and, if feasible and practical with law enforcement on the ground, how I could create opportunities for them, while liaising closely with the family at all times. I then prioritised which outlets would get what and when, if at all.
Part of it was also daily relationship-building on the ground and developing trust to overcome the language difficulties and improve international media co-operation. Getting local media to share pooled picture and interview opportunities, for example, was a particular hurdle until they understood they could trust me to deliver for them.

AH : What are the key PR skills needed when handling a case such as the disappearance of Madeleine McCann?
CM : It needed a mixture of skills: sheer common sense, honesty, rapidity of response, having a clear line to take ready and dealing with the journalists in as straightforward and open a way as possible, given the constraints of the police operation.
If a journalist was straight with me in their approach and demands, I was straight with them in what I could or could not tell or offer them, which on many days wasn’t much.
In terms of assisting the family themselves, it also required tact and sensitivity and an understanding of their own antipathy towards certain media requests, discussing with them in detail the merits of certain bids and how they may or may not help the wider search.
I effectively acted as the middleman trying daily to balance the family’s privacy and law enforcement’s operational restrictions on public statements or picture opportunities with the media’s constant desire and demand for updated information and their central, over-riding desire to help the search.
At certain times coverage could be highly counter-productive and it was hard for journalists to accept that.
I also took a hard-nosed attitude to any journalistic nonsense, blatant exaggeration or swallowing of downright lies. Later, I acted as liaison with the family’s defamation lawyers and senior editorial figures in the UK, which required tact and diplomacy whilst also making robustly clear the failures of their own internal editorial systems.

AH : What are the lessons you’ve taken away from handling the McCann case that you can apply to your other clients, especially now you’ve started your own firm?
CM : To be as human, empathetic and sensitive as possible, whilst still being firm, brutally honest and fair in dealing with both your clients and the media.
Common sense, transparency and an ability not to be afraid to say it how it is still takes you a long way in PR, not the latest comms jargon or buzzword.
The industry, at heart, is still driven by relationships and the mutual trust that develops as your advocacy grows for a client or your sell-in delivers for a journalist. Nurture those core characteristics in all your client and media relationships and they will underpin your success, bolstering everything you do.

AH : How does working as a journalist for the BBC differ to working in public relations?
CM : There were both similarities and key differences. At the BBC, I spent 20 years dealing with hard facts rather than opinion, researching stories extensively and establishing the accuracy of a situation – the exact same attributes needed in PR when understanding a client, their background or product and the facts of their situation. That core journalistic discipline has stood me in very good stead ever since.
The differences, though, lie in my originally not being able to express any view as a news reporter.
In PR, particularly within reputation management, I had to rapidly become an advocate, taking a position and arguing it strongly on behalf of the client, almost, in fact, a political role. That was a big adjustment to make from simply being the impartial BBC observer and messenger.

AH :How did your experience leading the British government’s media monitoring unit prepare you for working in PR?
CM : It gave me a crucial insight into the workings of central government structures at the highest level, along with an understanding of the civil service culture and attitudes – all vital for effective public affairs outreach in my later PR life.
It also gave me strong political insight. Although I, of course, operated with strict neutrality under the Civil Service Code of propriety, working for Ministers of the day, no matter which Party was in power.
Running a mid-sized team of Information Officers across a 24/7 rota was also good management experience for my later chairing of public affairs and media practice areas in a network agency.
In many respects, the UK civil service was the ideal bridging element in my career to make the transition from journalism to PR.

AH : What are the challenges in starting your own PR business?
CM : Establishing, expanding and diversifying my core client list as swiftly as possible. I have been fortunate enough so far to have built a public profile that has brought me a valued client base, stretching across the personal, corporate and political spheres.
My central challenge now is to consolidate CMC Ltd to become a significant industry presence, whilst building out new relationships and client offers across potential new sectors, for example, in entertainment and sport.

AH : In terms of the PR industry what do you see as the key challenges for the year ahead?
CM : The industry still needs to build a far broader C-suite acceptance of the PR and comms function as an integral part of the core management and marketing portfolio. For too many companies PR remains a bolt-on, regarded as expensive, only really visible and valued when a crisis hits.
The key industry challenge remains the need for PR to prove its worth daily within the boardroom, not simply as a generator of publicity or some sort of press office add-on, but as the ever watchful. multi-channel promoter and guardian of reputation, brand and share price.
In the sprawling digital age, clients – corporate, political and personal – still need to understand that while the day of controlling the message is largely over, replaced by the day of influencing it, the attendant multi–platform opportunities to do so have never been greater.
Logistically, staff retention, low pay for interns and an uncertain global economic climate continuing the downward pressure on budget spend will also all continue to present central industry challenges in the coming year.