Madonna adoption: one month on

Madonna's adoption of a Malawian baby caused a media maelstrom across the globe. Alex Black assesses the fallout.

When little David Banda left his orphanage in Malawi on 12 October - for a life in the UK with Madonna and husband Guy Ritchie - the world's media were quick to throw stones. Some commentators accused the singer of using her fame and wealth to bypass legal procedures; others claimed the adoption of the child from one of the world's poorest countries was a publicity stunt.

Meanwhile, some human-rights groups and child charities expressed their anger and dismay at the high-profile adoption.

Madonna's PR aides hit back. On 17 October the singer released a rare public statement, saying she had followed the law and her intention was to ‘help one child escape an extreme life of hardship, poverty and in many cases death, as well as expand our family'.

Frank and heartfelt interviews on Oprah (25 October) and even Newsnight (1 November) followed.

Moving with the times'
Barbara Charone, co-founder of MBC PR - which represents Madonna in the UK - says Newsnight ‘felt like the right vehicle', but declines to comment further on the media strategy.

TheFishCanSing director Dan Holliday, who specialises in consumer-brand marketing, says: ‘Brands are under pressure to demonstrate values beyond mere money-making, and there is a sense that the adoption is the Madonna brand moving with the times.'

To gauge the reaction and the effect on Madonna's reputation, PRWeek took a look at the tone of reporting by some key media and asked the general public what they thought of the star. We also consulted two media experts on the health of Madonna's image...

ANALYSIS 1: the PR professional's view

Julian Payne, director, Henry's House:  ‘I doubt very much whether Madonna's reputation has been irreparably damaged by the media storm around her adoption of baby David.  In fact, by Madonna's standards, adopting a little boy from Africa is really not that shocking.  Provided she contributes to the area from where he came (which she has) and she respects his culture and background as he grows up (which she says she will), it will be hard to find fault in what she has done. At worst you could argue that her mistake was allowing the adoption trip to turn into a media circus. 

‘The truth is that no one will really be able to judge what she has done until the boy has grown up. By then she will probably have reinvented herself several more times and shocked the world's media in a dozen different ways.

‘The true positive will emerge if Madonna, like Mia Farrow and Angelina Jolie before her, can ensure there is a steady stream of media interest focused on the issues that affect Malawians. That way David becomes a poster boy for something more than an adoption lottery in which underprivileged children are whisked off from penury into a world of unimaginable privilege.'

ANALYSIS 2: the journalist's view

Maggie O'Riordan, associate editor (news), women's gossip magazine First:  ‘When Madonna decided to adopt David, she probably thought she would be seen as a saintly figure. But the problem is simple: David is not an orphan. True, David's mother died soon after his birth. But he does have a father who visited him regularly. When Yohane Banda told the world's press he loved his son but could not afford to care for him, that should have been a turning point in Madonna' s PR battle.

‘The singer certainly seemed genuine when she told Newsnight that she had offered assistance to David's father to help him bring up David in Malawi. But newspapers claimed she had turned down the chance to adopt a child with no family, leaving commentators divided on her actions.

‘Some believe children should not be plucked from their native culture under any circumstances. Others argue that such children face a terrible life. It is hard to know how history will judge Madonna. For in a single act of altruism she has ignited a debate that encompasses Africa, poverty, adoption law, and the power that comes with being famous and wealthy.'

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