Diana: How we saw it: The PR man wins on points

Michael Cole confronted his biggest challenge. The Al Fayed spokesman started well, the professionals tell Ann Treneman, but he stumbled as the week ended

Michael Cole has a reputation for being good in a crisis and, as Mohamed Al Fayed's spokesman, he gets every chance to practise at getting even better. Over the years a forest has been felled for the newsprint needed to record the events generated by this whirlwind Egyptian who so yearns to call himself British.

Mr Cole has been through all of them: the critical Department of Trade report into the Harrods takeover, the legendary feud with Lonrho's Tiny Rowland, the refusal of the British government to grant citizenship. Mr Fayed played crucial roles in the downfall of Jonathan Aitken and the cash-for-questions scandal. "It really is a nightmare job," says one colleague. But Mr Cole, a former journalist who is as smooth as his boss is not, seems to relish it.

But there are crises and there are catastrophes and when Michael Cole received that terrible early morning phone call last Sunday he was entering new territory. The world's most famous woman and his boss's eldest son had died in mysterious circumstances. Mr Fayed seemed linked to everything: the Ritz hotel, the driver, the car. There were immediate questions about the car's speed, the paparazzi, the sequence of events.

It was the job of Mr Cole, a former BBC court correspondent, to reply to them all. His own feelings - he knew Dodi well and Diana too - had to be set aside. "The moment a crisis strikes there is a flashpoint, and from that moment an information vacuum exists. If there is no information, the vacuum will be filled with any nonsense that comes along," says Michael Bland, a crisis management consultant and author of a forthcoming book, Crisis!

"It is very important to have someone who can speak with authority to go very quickly in front of the camera. Usually this is the top man but in this case the guy has just lost his son so you cannot do that. It could have been someone more senior though. And Mr Cole at times did sound rather defensive. I would say they did the right thing but could have done it a bit more sensitively."

At Harrods the phone lines were flooded with thousands of calls from press and public. An impromptu people's shrine of Cellophane and flowers spread out around door seven on the Brompton Road and the 15-member PR department was working flat out. "I would describe the week as a running crisis meeting," said a spokesperson.

In general Mr Cole, now known to television viewers round the world, seems to have done the big things right during much of the week. His BBC training makes him as authoritative as his Mr Whippy hairstyle is memorable and he worked hard at getting across Mr Fayed's human side. "I think he seemed to be able to balance well the need to go with the public mood over Diana and to ensure that people did not forget that Mohamed Al Fayed had also suffered a great loss," Kate Nicholas of PR Week says. "It was an extraordinarily difficult job."

Max Clifford, the spin doctor's spin doctor, says: "Michael Cole has gone through a minefield and he's done bloody well. I might have tweaked what he's done this way and that way a bit but only a bit.

"For instance I would never have called his boss Mr. I would have called him Mohamed. The British public don't like that manservant role. Also I would never have been interviewed with Harrods behind me. That will be seen as promoting Harrods. I'm sure that was not Michael's idea but I still would not have done it."

Nor perhaps should Mr Cole keep returning with such tenacity to Mr Fayed's citizenship battles. "He was mixing up his messages," another publicist said. He also was sticking like glue to several facts, particularly about the driver and his sobriety on the night, that were at odds with other evidence.

The week ended badly with a mishmash of a press conference on Friday afternoon. The nation was absorbed in its sorrow - and its anger at the Royal Family's stoicism - but Mr Cole and his team were talking about charity plans, showing Ritz security video clips of Dodi and Diana, dropping bizarre hints about Diana's last wishes and presenting new (but inconclusive) evidence to show the driver was sober. The timing was immediately criticised. "It seems in somewhat bad taste," a family friend told the Telegraph. "It is difficult to understand the motives."

Not only is it in bad taste, it is bad PR. A basic rule of crisis management is that you show an interest in getting at the truth and say you will co-operate in any way possible. Michael Cole flunked this part of the test and, as the public mood becomes less forgiving and more inquisitive over the next few weeks, there will be more testing times to come. The official French investigation into the crash continues and there is still a possibility that the only survivor, the bodyguard, Trevor Rees- Jones, may recover from his injuries and be able to tell police what really happened. The only thing that is clear now is that there is much that we do not know about what happened that night and Michael Cole's various statements only seem to muddle the issues more. There is a danger that this could be misinterpreted as Mohamed Al Fayed - who has previously demonstrated a belief in conspiracy - trying to confuse us

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Data Analytics Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading organisation...

Accountant / Assistant Management Accountant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an Assistant Management Ac...

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Insight Analyst Vacancy - Leading Marketing Agency

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency have won a fe...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices