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

Ann Treneman
Sunday 07 September 1997 23:02

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

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