CAMPAIGNS: GTech loses High Court gamble - Media Relations

The ’Virgin libel’ trial between Guy Snowden, chairman of American gaming company GTech and Virgin’s billionaire chief Richard Branson was one of the most publicised court room battles this decade.

The ’Virgin libel’ trial between Guy Snowden, chairman of American

gaming company GTech and Virgin’s billionaire chief Richard Branson was

one of the most publicised court room battles this decade.



Branson claimed Snowden, a director of Camelot, tried to bribe him to

drop his bid to run the National Lottery during a lunch in September

1993.



Snowden sued for libel and Branson countersued Snowdon and GTech’s PR

director Robert Rendine for saying there was insufficient evidence to

support his claim.



Following a three-week trial at the High Court in late January 1998, the

jury found in favour of Branson and Snowden resigned from GTech.



Objectives



To manage media relations and to plan for possible outcomes of the

case.



Tactics



GTech’s media relations adviser John Stonborough had begun planning a PR

strategy two years ago when news of the trial came to light. This ranged

from what Snowden should wear in court to what kind of car he should

leave in.



Closer to the trial date Stonborough, GTech UK and Europe PR director

Sarah Carmichael, Lowe Bell deputy chairman Jem Miller and Mark Palazzo,

senior press officer for GTech in the US, rented a suite at the Howard

Hotel, close to the court, and set up a ’war room.’ They brought in

three secretaries and set up nine telephone lines. The team arranged two

’scene setting’ interviews with Snowden with the Sunday Times and Sunday

Telegraph to run the day before the trial.



For the next three weeks the ’war room’ operated 24 hours a day to deal

with UK and foreign media. The PR advisers were forbidden to comment on

the record but could affirm or deny facts about the case, correct media

inaccuracies and inform the media when certain witnesses were

appearing.



Each day was spent scouring witness statements and attending court

proceedings to decide the latest strategy and avoid any surprise

stories. This also enabled the team to inform journalists when

potentially interesting witnesses were to speak.



When GTech lost the case on 2 February, its contingency plan was put

into action. The team decided not to use the pre-booked conference

room.



Instead they waited until Branson had finished his victory speech then

Snowden read out a pre-planned press statement saying he was

resigning.



The statement was released through the Press Association.



The press office then ’shut down,’ refusing to comment further for three

days. On day three they offered the Sunday Telegraph an interview with

GTech’s new chairman William O’Connor as a vehicle to discuss the

company’s ’big cultural change’.



Results



Carmichael did not analyse the campaign and feels it is hard to assess

whether they acted in the right way in shutting down immediately after

the case.



’The most difficult thing is to sit on your hands,’ she explains. ’Your

instincts say you should do something but I think we can look back and

say we did handle it the right way.



’When there is a firestorm the odd comment can be like throwing in a can

of kerosene, it’s best to let the fire rage.’



Evaluation will come later after GTech has entered into a longer term

campaign which Carmichael describes as ’the slow, laborious process of

re-building and educating.’



Verdict



Will Whitehorn, Virgin’s director of corporate affairs, believes GTech’s

PR approach was ’heavy-handed’ and more suited to a US court case. But,

given what was at stake for Snowden, it is difficult to fault the PR

team’s high pressure approach.



The resignation of Snowden was a huge blow to GTech’s image and no one

involved is pretending otherwise. Wisely, the team of media advisers

chose not to enter into a war of words after the trial which could have

multiplied the negative press cuttings.



The real PR challenge now, however, is to repair the damage and push the

point that there is more to the world’s biggest lottery operator than

the 1998 Virgin libel trial.



Client: GTech

PR Team: John Stonborough, Jem Miller, Sarah Carmichael and Mark Palazzo

Campaign: Media relations for GTech during the recent Virgin/GTech court

case

Timescale: 1 October 1997 - 5 February 1998

Cost: Undisclosed



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