The PR expert who advised Madeleine's parents in the first weeks of her disappearance offers a new insight into their state of mind
Gerry and Kate McCann’s on-screen composure in the days after their daughter disappeared was at odds with their turmoil and dread behind the scenes, a witness says today.
The couple swung between uncontrollable distress and a determination to do what was needed to help to find Madeleine. They gave no indication that they thought she had been snatched, let alone by a paedophile. Their early assumption was that she had wandered off and had an accident or been taken in by a well-meaning stranger.
Alex Woolfall, a public relations consultant for the holiday resort where the child disappeared, was with the McCanns regularly for that first fortnight and is convinced that they are innocent. “That they could be involved and in any way be guilty - to me they would have to win every Golden Globe and every Oscar ever awarded,” he told The Times.
Mr Woolfall has provided the first detailed account by an insider of what happened to the McCanns during the desperate days after Madeleine disappeared. He is an expert in crisis PR at the communications group Bell Pottinger and flew to Portugal as part of the Mark Warner holiday company’s emergency response team on Saturday, May 5. Madeleine vanished on the evening of May 3.
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He met the couple for the first time at their new apartment. “They were behaving exactly as I thought someone in that situation would be,” Mr Woolfall said. “They had not slept. They were trying to work out what to do that might help generate images of her. They were desperately keen to publicise her face.”
The McCanns had photographs of Madeleine on their digital camera, which Mr Woolfall began transferring to a laptop computer. “I said to Kate, ‘Let’s try to identify pictures where her face is visible’. Downloading the images was a very difficult process for them. It was upsetting.
“They were trying to do two things at once: one, emotionally deal with what was actually, really happening to them; two, operate in some sort of logical way to help get her back.”
Mr Woolfall transmitted the photographs to the Press Association in London, from where they were distributed to the media. The portfolio included the now famous image of Madeleine wearing a hat on a tennis court.
The McCanns wanted to do more. “They were exhausted and despairing but thinking, ‘Should we go outside and say something that might get her back?’ They said they wanted to head downstairs and talk to the media. They were very tired, but that was one thing they were determined to do.”
Mr Woolfall went out to alert journalists and returned to the McCanns. “They wrote down what they wanted to say and went out and gave a short statement. After that, they were completely spent. You could tell there was nothing left.”
Mr Woolfall was surprised by the reaction of British viewers to the couple’s demeanour. “I was struck at the perception of people who had watched Kate and Gerry: that they were very controlled and perhaps were not responding in a way people thought would be more natural. They were not at all controlled. When I was with them, they were between being completely distraught and trying to do what they felt was the right thing.” Armchair detectives have leapt to wild conclusions based on the few alleged details of the case to have emerged. One bone of contention has been whether Mrs McCann, when raising the alarm that Madeleine was missing, screamed: “They’ve taken her.” Some have questioned why a mother would leap to the conclusion that a child had been abducted.
Mr Woolfall says that he heard no suggestion in the early days that the girl had been snatched. “Certainly I did not hear any discussion that this could be a paedophile or an aggravated robbery. All the time I was around it was whether she could have wandered off and had an accident or somebody had actually taken her in, perhaps not with ill-intent.
“During the first 48 hours the word being used was ‘missing’ rather than ‘abducted’ or any link with a paedophile or any sort of crime. Towards the end of the second week I detected a shift towards there being a consciousness that she had probably been taken rather than wandered off, just on the assumption that anybody would have found her by now.”
Many theories have emerged from the claim that Madeleine’s twin sister and brother, aged 2, failed to wake or cry when she vanished. Mr Woolfall said he had not heard of the twins’ alleged silence until he read about it in a newspaper in Britain. The claim was attributed to the Portuguese police.
There has even been a suggestion that Mrs McCann carried her daughter’s Cuddle Cat soft toy because it would look good on TV. “For that to have in any way validity, it would cancel out the fact that these two people hadn’t got a clue about PR or the media,” Mr Woolfall said. “To suddenly be that sophisticated . . . I noticed Kate often had this toy with her. It was Madeleine’s favourite toy and she would go to bed with it. Kate had it with her when she went to church. She had it in the apartment.”
A lingering puzzle for many is why the couple left three children in the flat. “When I first got to Praia da Luz, I asked Mark Warner to put me in the chair at the tapas restaurant that they had sat in and show me where the apartment was,” Mr Woolfall said. “It never struck me that it would be a particularly odd thing to leave your children in that apartment, given that it was so close.
“It is incredibly sleepy and quiet in Praia da Luz. There is no traffic noise. One day when he was standing on a balcony, Gerry was saying how they felt when they first came to the resort. The pool was close, supermarket round the corner. They felt everything was a stone’s throw.”
The McCanns have sometimes irritated observers with the fervency of their do-it-yourself campaign. “When I came back there was criticism: why is this couple out there publicising this, doing interviews, going in front of cameras, going through photo opportunities? If you look at what would have happened in the UK, you would have had, probably within hours, a proactive intervention by British police, who would have said this is the process we now need to go through.
“Kate and Gerry have been largely left to get on with it, with no support in the initial stages, or guidance. They realised the media were a huge potential ally.”
Mr Woolfall recalled how the bewildered couple gradually began to recover their composure. “In the first week they were not thinking. They actually did not think. They were in shock.
“In the second week, Gerry behaved very much like a doctor would do. Doctors are analytical. He started to have much more strategic conversations with me about what they might do. They became more aware that getting Madeleine’s photograph widely distributed in Spain and possibly North Africa was sensible.
“Gerry said to me, ‘We don’t want the awareness that Madeleine has gone missing to disappear overnight, and that we are a family whose child went missing on holiday and that is the end of it. We want to try and find her.’ When I left Portugal, the beginnings of the idea of having a campaign were probably forming.
“They were actually quite hopeful - far more in that frame of mind than despondent and downbeat. They had gone 360 degrees several times through all the different emotional states, but they soon got some good control on things.”
Mr Woolfall left after a fortnight working from 5am to 1am, fending 200 calls a day from journalists as far away as Norway and South Africa. He warned the McCanns that they needed a press officer. “Gerry, I think, spoke to the Consulate and said ‘Can you help us? Because there is a lot of media interest and we cannot manage.’ As a result of that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office flew out Sheree Dodd [an experienced government spokeswoman].”
At first, journalists treated the McCanns with great respect, but there was a free-for-all when the couple took their first unscheduled walk along the beach. “Freelance snappers started to get quite close to them and one or two questions were thrown at them. That was probably the very early stages of the change,” Mr Woolfall said. “It reached a crescendo when the McCanns tried to take their kids to the crèche and were bombarded by snappers and freelancers.”
When the McCanns were made suspects, Mr Woolfall was bemused. “I thought it was ridiculous. I couldn’t believe it. Completely ludicrous.”
Did you suspect them? “My God, no, absolutely not in any way at any stage. I walked into that apartment and just saw two people who were frantic that their daughter had gone missing. Nobody could possibly, if they had anything to do with that, behave in that way for so long.
“It made me laugh rather than be exasperated. From Day One they could not move anywhere without 100 flash bulbs going off. The whole idea that they could have done any of thethings the police were suggesting was farcical.
“You could not pick another couple on the planet that would have had that many cameras trained on them.”
Alex Woolfall Head of crisis management for the Bell Pottinger Group. Flew to Portugal on behalf of Mark Warner on May 5.
Sheree Dodd The former Daily Mirror journalist and long-serving senior government spokeswoman was deployed as a media liaison officer for the McCann family.
Clarence Mitchell The former BBC News reporter was sent in by the Cabinet Office in May to provide “consular support”. He became the McCanns’ full-time spokesman last month. His £75,000 salary is met by Brian Kennedy, a millionaire.
Justine McGuinness The Lib Dem activist was the McCanns’ first campaign manager. She is understood to have been exhausted by the 24-hour demands of the job and stood down in September.