Michael Cole has arguably the most visible job in PR at the
As public affairs director at Harrods or, more accurately, Mohamed al
Fayed’s trusted lieutenant, he is no stranger to press attention.
However, the dramatic and untimely deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales
and Dodi Fayed, have thrust him into the public eye as never before.
Since that fateful Sunday,he has barely been off camera or air.
The death of the most famous woman in the world provoked an
unprecedented display of national sorrow. The circumstances surrounding
her demise have required sensitive handling, to say the least.
’He has handled it brilliantly, in exemplary fashion, and I’d say
probably better than anyone else would have done,’ says Lowe Bell
Communications group managing director Piers Pottinger, who has worked
with Cole on Harrods business and known him for two to three years. ’He
is the consummate professional: he cares deeply, is completely committed
and amazingly knowledgeable about his subject. He was right on top of
events. He understood the situation at once and pitched his tone
absolutely right. Don’t forget that he, too, was emotionally involved.
It is impossible to be detached when you are talking about someone you
know well and his emotions did show through, which was right,’ he
Pottinger adds that handing out food and drink to the hordes queuing for
hours to sign the books of condolence was ’a brilliant touch’, ’the kind
of gesture that we have come to associate with Michael and Mohamed’.
Since the accident Cole has been unwavering in his condemnation of the
pursuing paparazzi he believes were directly responsible for the
His disdain for their activities is nothing new, however. Three weeks
before the accident, he wrote to PR Week to protest at the presumption
of PR luminaries Quentin Bell and Sir Bernard Ingham who had dared to
comment in these pages on the Princess’ private, albeit widely reported,
In that letter he blamed the European paparazzi for making public what
should have been a private holiday. His remarks now look horribly
portentous, although no one could have imagined the events that followed
With the sheer weight of coverage given to Diana’s passing, Dodi’s death
was in danger of being overlooked. Of course it is anything but
inconsequential to his bereaved father. Cole had to work hard to prevent
it being swept aside. He was on hand when Diana’s stepmother Raine,
Comtesse de Chambrun, a director of Harrods International, spoke at a
live press conference on the Sunday. ’If the plan was to say something
about Dodi first so that it wouldn’t get cut out, it definitely worked,’
says an industry source.
Cole joined the PR industry and the Fayed’s camp in 1988 after an
unfortunate incident involving the Queen’s Christmas address the year
before. Mirror royal reporter James Whitaker, who worked with Cole on
local newspapers in the early-1960s, describes the way Cole was treated
as ’one of the most despicable things in journalism’.
The incident took place at a Christmas lunch in hack haunt wine bar
Mother Bunches. Cole, then BBC court correspondent and a staffer of 20
years standing, was lunching with fellow royal reporters, including
Andrew Morton and Whitaker. ’He did not give away any secrets and he
certainly did not leak details of the Queen’s speech,’ asserts Whitaker.
’He was asked what he had been up to and he made some generalisations.
It was a private conversation.’
The story was, however, splashed all over the popular press the
following day. Cole says that as soon as the situation became clear he
offered his resignation. In fact, the BBC apologised to the Queen and
shifted Cole into arts and media in January 1988. Ten months later he
embraced Al Fayed.
’I have the greatest professional respect for him,’ says Whitaker. ’He
has shown understanding of what reporters want and has struck a balance
between giving guidance and retaining loyalty to his employer. I don’t
know how much he earns, but whatever it is, it is not enough.’
Local newspaper reporter
Media director House of Fraser
Director of public affairs Harrods