Profile: Michael Cole, Harrods: Coping with a nation in grief - Michael Cole has had the unenviable task of facing up to a world in mourning

Michael Cole has arguably the most visible job in PR at the moment.

Michael Cole has arguably the most visible job in PR at the

moment.



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

observes.



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

crash.



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,

Mediterranean cruise.



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

in Paris.



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.’



HIGHLIGHTS

Early-1960s

Local newspaper reporter

1968

BBC reporter

1988

Media director House of Fraser

1991

Director of public affairs Harrods



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