Nobody could guess, when the news broke on May 3 that a British child had gone missing, that the riddle would eclipse any crime story of the internet age.
What became “brand Madeleine” arose from a combination of brilliant media-handling skills and, for the first time, interactive websites telling editors how much the public craved such a story.
If the Portuguese police were sluggish about starting to search for the missing girl, nobody could accuse British spin-doctors and reporters of being slow off the mark in their hunt for headlines.
The McCanns dominated the news quickly. As doctors and young parents living a quiet provincial life, they had no experience of dealing with the media.
Fortunately, the Mark Warner organisation that runs the holiday camp where Madeleine disappeared was represented by one of the best PRs in the business.
Alex Woolfall is crisis management head at Bell Pottinger, the public relations outfit headed by the original sultan of spin, Lord Bell. Mr Woolfall’s main clients have included that other global brand Coca-Cola.
For the first fortnight after Madeleine disappeared, he was on the spot in Praia da Luz, acting as gobetween for the family and the growing pack of journalists.
“We were aware from the outset that there was a huge amount of media interest and they were very keen to see the media as a partner,” he said in an interview.
“They find themselves having to ask themselves ‘What can we possibly do that means we will be able to sleep tonight, knowing that we have done everything today that we could have done?’.”
In an unprecedented move, the Government took over news-handling on behalf of the McCanns.
Sheree Dodd, a former Daily Mirror journalist and long-serving senior spokeswoman for the Government, was dispatched to Portugal. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office announced that she was being deployed as “press officer responsible to act as media liaison officer for the McCann family”.
After a couple of weeks, she was replaced by an even more prominent political figure.
Clarence Mitchell, a former BBC News presenter now working as a senior government spin-doctor, became the voice of the McCanns. He was described formally as providing “consular support in exceptional circumstances”. His costs came to just over £6,000, and Ms Dodd’s are likely to be similar.
A Foreign Office source said: “This has been a completely new situation. We had to do something.”
Mr Mitchell was regarded by journalists as an impressive and helpful figure who was sensitive to the needs of the locals as well as the British.
At first, reports suggested that the McCanns would be reluctant to leave Portugal without getting Madeleine back. But they were persuaded to undertake a foreign tour featuring an audience with the Pope, Mr Mitchell sitting close by.
A clever brand image was created. Madeleine has an unusual iris in her right eye that would make her unmistakable even if she were disguised.
Wristbands were issued with the words “Look for Madeleine”. The letters “oo” were designed to resemble the distinctive shape of the girl’s eyes.
Madeleine’s case was seized upon by organisations promoting the search for missing people.
But adverse reaction began when a cinema advertisement was screened before the latest Shrek film. Parents complained that their children were being frightened.
To date, the Find Madeleine campaign, which has a much-visited website that seemed to be struggling under the weight of demand yesterday, has raised more than £1 million. Mr McCann posts a regular blog. Its last entry, from Wednesday, is quite ominous and suggests that the media may have been tipped off about looming developments.
“We were surprised to find increased media presence in Praia da Luz again today,” he wrote. “All the excitement seems to be over the results of the recent forensic tests.”
Justine McGuinness, a public relations expert, has been recruited, with the help of a headhunter, to become the McCanns’ private spokeswoman in Praia da Luz.
The media feeding frenzy is driven in part by the popularity of Madeleine McCann stories on news websites.
For many of the past 128 days, her name has been the most-searched item.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Daily Express has put Madeleine’s picture on its front page almost every day. Its previous favourite cover girl was that other British blonde who came to grief mysteriously in foreign parts: Diana, Princess of Wales.