Kate and Gerry McCann: the subject of a University thesis

The Kate and Gerry Show?

Assessment of the effectiveness of the Find Madeleine PR campaign launched after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann

by Natalia Salamon

Media Studies Dissertation - University of Westminster

In May of 2007 four year old Briton Madeleine McCann disappeared from her parents’ holiday apartment in Portugal. The story has become one of the most extensively covered subjects in media in 2007 and beyond.

The missing child’s parents – Kate and Gerry McCann – have started an extensive PR campaign to publicise the search for little Madeleine. Looking objectively from a time perspective assess the effectiveness of this campaign and draw conclusions about audience’s and media reactions.

The extensive quantitative research, complemented by interviews with experts, have demonstrated the failure of the campaign in PR terms, as McCanns have consequently overshadowed their own daughter in the media spotlight.


On Tuesday the 11th of March 2009 Commons’ Culture Select Committee held a meeting over the review of privacy laws in Britain. One of the speakers was Gerry McCann, a cardiologist from Rothley. When addressing the Committee he said: “Our family has been the focus of some of the most sensationalist, untruthful, irresponsible and damaging reporting in the history of the press, the whole thing turned into “Kate and Gerry show” (BBC News, 2009). The case he was referring to is the media coverage of the search for his missing daughter, Madeleine McCann. Max Clifford, an experienced publicist, referred to this coverage as “probably the biggest story I can remember in the 45 years I have involved in the media industry; it had a live of its own” (McCanns versus the Media, 2008)

Madeleine disappeared from a holiday apartment in Praia de Luz in Portugal, Thursday evening on the 3rd of May 2007. The resort itself, located on the Portuguese shore, belongs to Mark Warner company, a firm focused on family-oriented holidays, “leading the way in childcare for 30 years” (Mark Warner Official Website, 2009). Madeleine’s parents, both doctors, were not present in the flat at the time, as they were dining with friends at a tapas restaurant, located around 120 metres away. Madeleine was tucked in as were her two siblings before her parents left for the evening meal. McCanns’ dining companions have also left their offspring in their bedrooms and regular checks on the sleeping children were carried out approximately every half an hour (Collins, 2008). Collins (2008) asserts that the resort offers a crèche free-of-charge and a babysitter for a minimal fee (p. 23), but both McCanns and their companions decided to use their checks system, which they have also applied during a previous holiday in Greece.

The flats where the children slept have been left unlocked for the convenience of parents carrying checks. It was reported that the McCanns’ party of nine has been dining in the restaurant every night since their arrival, always without children and “consuming an average of eight to ten bottles of wine with and after their meals each night” (Collins, 2008, p.XXXIV).

The absence of Madeleine in her bed has been discovered by her mother just before 10PM that night, with Police being notified shortly and the volunteer search starting immediately.

The news of missing British girls, who disappeared on the Portuguese soil have hit the morning news in UK the following morning (Bennett, 2009).

The effort of both Portuguese and British Police failed to locate Madeleine or her body and didn’t identify the disappearance neither as abduction, accident nor murder. The case remains unsolved as of April 2009.

The disappearance of a child, however devastating and terrifying, is sadly a daily occurrence. Collins (2008) gives the number of 846 recorded cases of child abductions in 2002/03, “while the total number of missing children (runaways for any reason) is estimated at 70,000 annually” (p.165). In Italy, police records show that 1,850 minors went missing in 2005. In Belgium, the number of dossiers reported by the Police in 2005 was 1,022 (Collins, 2008). According to recent report by PACT, the problem is not tackled seriously enough, as different locations around the UK have different success rates in locating missing children, with recent report about missing children being entitled “The Postcode Lottery” (Parents & Abducted Children Together, 2009).

With a child going missing nearly everyday, the Madeleine McCann’s story appears to be attracting enormous amounts of media coverage. There are many factors that have attracted media to this particular news.

Issues like race, gender, age and location have been raised by commentators as key elements contributing to the perception of newsworthiness of this story.

Firstly we need to understand why the media attention was attracted in the first place, as it was in fact triggered my the Mark Warner company, the owner of the Praia da Luz resort. The McCanns have been provided with the media assistance immediately in the hours following the disappearance (BBC News Website, 2008). Mark Warner has hired Alex Woolfall, crisis management head at Bell Pottinger, who was there to help McCanns (and of course Mark Warner): “for the first fortnight after Madeleine disappeared, he was on the spot in Praia da Luz, acting as go-between for the family and the growing pack of journalists” (The Times Online, 2007).

Therefore the news of missing child and the search being underway made it to the UK within just few hours. According the company’s website “each year over 75% of company’s holidays are sold on basis of recommendation or repeated booking” (Mark Warner, 2009), so with a child going missing on the premises became a time of trial of the firm.

We have identified “the trigger” behind such a quick media coverage – the Mark Warner’s PR team. Soon McCanns gained powerful allies: celebrities, businesspeople and politicians: speaking publicly of Madeleine or contributing financially to her search.

Soon Find Madeleine McCann Fund has been set-up in purpose of financing the search efforts and from this fund the first McCanns’ spokesperson Justine McGuiness was being paid her salary (Find Madeleine Official Website, 2009). McGuiness resigned in mid August and has been replaced by Clarence Mitchell, a former journalist, who quit his job at Foreign and Commonwealth Office, because “he felt so strongly that the couple were innocent and he wanted to help them” (The Independent on Sunday, 2009).

His connection to Commonwealth Office led media to report, that he was sent by the Government, but he was in fact a private employee paid by the one of the Madeline Fund contributors, Sir Philip Green of Top Shop (The McCanns versus the Media, 2008). Soon after he took over, McCanns have been named official suspects the Portuguese Police investigation (Collins, 2008).

These two media professionals have been the driving force behind the PR campaign. McGuiness was McCanns’ spokesperson in the immediate aftermath after the disappearance and led the efforts to publicise it, to made the story known. Clarence Mitchell took over just days before McCanns being named official suspects and he faced another task: to defend McCanns’ image and make sure the search remains the key angle in the coverage, rather than McCanns’ suspected involvement.

We can see that McCanns have invested in PR services to publicise the search of their daughter, as they have appreciated that the publicity is greatly aiding the search of any missing child. The documentary “The McCanns versus the Media” (Al Jazeera English, 2008) quotes Gerry McCanns’ sister, who explains that “It was the Centre for Missing and Exploited Children who contacted [the McCanns] and told [them] that the only way to find a missing child is to publicise it; the only times the children have been found [it] was after they have been publicised”. But inevitably media coverage generated by their team has been damaging to the country’s tourism industry and triggered a conflict with Portuguese Police, forced to conduct a sensitive investigation under scrutinising media spotlight.

Martin Brunt, correspondent for Sky News identified some of the key factors in the coverage: McCanns had all that was needed for a “perfect storm”: the right place, right time, the right circumstances and appearance and the right company (Mark Warner) backing them up. But somewhere it all went wrong, with McCanns becoming “macabre celebrities” on their own right. The tone of reporting seemed to drastically changed and McCanns have became a subject of coverage that Gerry was referring to in his speech to the MPs.

The campaign is a valuable example that media students can learn from.

The questions that this dissertation is interested in answering are:

[1] Was the Find Madeleine PR campaign effective?
[2] What conclusions can be drown from analysis of the campaign in terms of successful and unsuccessful elements?

Literature review

The thesis can be read at the 3 arguidos: 'The Kate & Gerry Show?' by Natalia Salamon (Uni thesis)

Is there a link between Natalia and Clarence Mitchell? http://www.linkedin.com/pub/natalia-salamon/14/305/a27

Gonçalo Amaral has also written an account of 'The Kate and Gerry Show' and it can be read here