CAMPAIGNS: Crisis Management - 'Cheriegate' forces Caplin into PR battle

Client: Carole Caplin
PR Team: MacLaurin Media
Campaign: Minimising the fallout from 'Cheriegate'
Timescale: November - December 2002
Budget: Undisclosed

As a straight debacle over whether the Prime Minister's wife, the British Government, or an Australian conman were telling the truth, the 'Cheriegate' saga had obvious merits for the media.

Peter Foster, a convicted fraudster, helped Cherie Blair negotiate the purchase of two flats in Bristol in October and November. She subsequently failed to answer directly questions from the Mail on Sunday about his involvement, causing the Downing Street press office to inadvertently mislead lobby journalists.

Carole Caplin, friend and adviser to Blair and partner of Foster, approached MacLaurin Media on 28 November when Foster's ex-business partners were looking to sell their story, initially through Max Clifford, to the News of the World. This was likely to include the suggestion that Caplin had been used by Foster, who was awaiting deportation proceedings, to gain access to the Blairs.

Objectives

To minimise the impact of the story - in particular to reduce damage to Caplin's reputation and ensure that positive PR work for her company, LifeSmart, could be undertaken when the dust from this imbroglio had settled.

To preserve the personal and professional relationship between Caplin and Cherie Blair.

Strategy and Plan

MacLaurin based its crisis management campaign on working with the Downing Street press operation, and on regular phone communication with senior broadsheet and tabloid journalists.

MD Ian Monk immediately contacted Labour director of communications Alastair Campbell, along with leading editors to assess which angles would be taken and the damage likely to be done.

MacLaurin wanted to present Caplin as an unwitting instrument of a story run to satisfy sections of the media's interest in attacking the Blairs - there could be no question of Caplin being seen as the origin of the stories or as a source of comment on them.

An initial statement was drafted making it clear that Caplin was running a reputable business, one of whose clients was Cherie Blair. That plan changed when the Daily Mail was able to disprove Downing Street's denials by publishing a selection of emails between Blair and Foster.

MacLaurin judged that Downing Street had switched tack from saying there was nothing in the story to concentrate on discrediting Foster with the media. This would throw up further questions on the wisdom of Blair's friendship with Caplin. Although the agency had no direct brief for Foster, his actions and standing inevitably impinged on the perception of Caplin and his positioning now became central, for the first time, to MacLaurin's client.

Monk and chairman Brian MacLaurin deemed it vital - in Caplin's interest - to make clear that neither Caplin nor Foster had any intention of selling any story about the Blairs, and that neither were responsible for the story breaking in the first place. The PR team also denied that Caplin and Foster had split up.

MacLaurin's team agreed not to react to Cherie Blair's statement about the affair on 11 December, in which she took the blame for the press office misleading journalists.

The hope that this would close matters proved false, and some media coverage in the latter stages focused on MacLaurin itself, and in particular on Ian Monk's role. Over the final weekend, 14-15 December, MacLaurin issued a statement saying that neither Foster nor Caplin would be selling the story - despite The Sun's publication of transcripts of phone conversations between Foster and his mother, in which he talked about getting paid for giving his side of the affair. MacLaurin worked on the drafting of Foster's final statement on 16 December, saying it persuaded him to remove anything hostile to Number 10.

Measurement and Evaluation

To some extent, damage to Caplin's reputation was limited by the media's intense focus on the past of a known criminal and on the Prime Minister's wife's grasp of propriety - Cherie Blair even topped a Radio 4 Today poll as the person whom listeners would most like to deport.

But MacLaurin could not stop photos of Caplin in her days as a model being published in a couple of red tops, and aspects of her professional relationship with the Prime Minister's wife - such as Caplin applying mud to Cherie Blair in the shower - being picked over.

Led by the Daily Mail, which picked up its sister paper's original story, every paper and news outlet gave the story prominence almost continuously throughout the fortnight.

But Kate Rankine wrote a balanced article in The Daily Telegraph about her experiences of Caplin's fitness classes and the Daily Mail even ran a piece by Peter McKay which indicated a softening of its attitude towards Caplin.

Results

Up until Monday 16 December, MacLaurin claimed to have been fielding 100-200 media calls a day. On Tuesday 17, interest in the story 'dried up', according to Monk - but it had run for more than two full weeks,and re-ignited on 30 December when the Daily Mail printed a story about Number 10's PROs pressuring for Foster's deportation.

While MacLaurin believes that it got its message across, not all would agree. Peter McKay said: 'Carole Caplin wasn't presented positively as far as I know. It was damage control.' Caplin and Blair apparently remained close.

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