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
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.
To manage media relations and to plan for possible outcomes of the
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
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
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
Instead they waited until Branson had finished his victory speech then
Snowden read out a pre-planned press statement saying he was
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’.
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 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.’
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.
PR Team: John Stonborough, Jem Miller, Sarah Carmichael and Mark Palazzo
Campaign: Media relations for GTech during the recent Virgin/GTech court
Timescale: 1 October 1997 - 5 February 1998