‘I would have thought the Qantas and PwC PR disasters would have been a lesson for all CEOs’: How Woolies got it wrong

Australia Day merchandise is barely in the backyard bins, yet Woolworths has crashed head-first into another PR crisis.

Banducci dummy-spat on the ABC, then announced his retirement on the eve of a price gouging Senate hearing. But how could this all have played out differently?

Phoebe Netto of Pure Public Relations, Mark Forbes and Benjamin Haslem from Icon Agency, Amanda Rose, CEO of Entrepreneurial and Small Business Women Australia, Justin Kelly from Media & Capital Partners, and Taurus Marketing founder Sharon Williams have their say.

The PR lessons behind Woolies’ game of CEO musical chairs

Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations.

Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci has announced his departure from the supermarket giant after copping heat for walking out on an interview with ABC’s Four Corners.

The grilling was part of the ABC’s wider investigation into alleged price gouging amid ongoing the cost of living crisis. During the interview, reporter Angus Grigg quoted former ACCC chairman Rod Sims, to which Banducci interrupted: ‘Retired, by the way’.

After the journalist pushed back on his malignment, he then backtracked and asked for his comments to be struck from the record, saying: “OK, well, can we take that out? Is that OK? I mean, he is retired. But I shouldn’t have said that, Angus. Are we going to leave it in there?’

When he was refused, Banducci walked out of the interview.

It’s the second time in recent memory that Woolies has seen a PR blunder become a bigger story than the issue itself, following the messy handling of its decision not to sell Australia Day merchandise.

The situation is yet another stark reminder that the ability to give a good interview to the media, particularly under difficult circumstances, is an essential part of the job of a CEO. To get there, regular robust media training must be a priority.

Brad Banducci has served in the role of CEO for eight-and-a-half years, and yet he was inexplicably unprepared for this sort of high-pressured interview. The bewildering part is that the questions he received – at least, the ones that made it to air – were not gotcha questions or red herrings. They were straightforward, albeit hard-hitting, questions that should not have been unexpected if the PR preparation had been reasonably thorough.

Banducci did not exude the calm and control expected of a CEO, especially one at the helm of Australia’s biggest supermarket. The high-pressure interview saw him default to a defensive flight or fight mode that came across as completely devoid of empathy. It limited his ability to respond well and saw him resort to disrespect of the journo, the public, and former ACCC chair, Rod Sims AO.

The role of CEO is no longer solely about leading the company through change and keeping it profitable. Today’s CEOs must understand that their personal brand is tied in with the business brand and public perception should be one of their chief KPIs.

Let’s be clear: the CEO’s reputation isn’t the sole responsibility of the comms department. They can do as much media training as they like, but it’s ultimately the CEO’s responsibility to contribute to their reputation and public image – a responsibility that Brad Banducci was no longer willing to take on.

Let’s hope PR is clearly listed as part of the new incoming managing director and Group CEO Amanda Bardwell’s job description, whose role will commence on September 1. As the current MD of Woolies X, Bardwell has the experience – and hopefully the communication nouse – required to turn the ship around.

But while a new CEO can be a great opportunity for a refresh, Woolies needs to be careful in how much fanfare is made. Often when a CEO has been ousted or resigns in negative circumstances, as is the case here, a great deal of transformation and repair is required. This can take time, especially if there’s resistance or trouble amongst the board or senior leadership, or if a deep cultural change is needed.

Placing the CEO in the role of scapegoat and casting the new CEO as ‘the rescuer’ only works if the customer experience is drastically improved shortly after. If it takes some time for a positive impact to be seen, the reality is that the new CEO’s initial moves will be an anti-climax at best.

The supermarket giant would do well to remember that how something is communicated matters just as much, if not more, than the substance of what you are saying. When your handling of the situation becomes a bigger story than the substance of what you are doing, you know you have a serious PR problem to address.

Woolies is set to face ongoing scrutiny for past actions coming out in the months to come. Let’s hope that Amanda Bardwell has the wherewithal (and the media training) to stay seated and face the music.

Done like a supermarket dinner, Woolworths CEO checks out

Mark Forbes is director of reputation and Benjamin Haslem director of public affairs and media at Icon Agency

Rarely are more prophetic words uttered in a media interview, “I think I’m done guys,” said Woolworth’s CEO Brad Banducci attempting to rise from his chair under questioning during the ABC’s Four Corners program, which aired Monday night.

Come Wednesday morning his resignation was announced. Woolworths denied any connection to the interview, ongoing criticism of supermarkets price-gouging during a cost of living crisis and claims Banducci was attempting to cancel Australia Day by refusing to stock nationalistic merchandise.

Woolworths can point to the fact the supermarket giant has been searching for a new chief executive since the middle of last year, but the inevitable public perception will be the CEO was pushed out because of Four Corners and other missteps.

The upshot is further damage to the brand and the credibility of its pronouncements, when Woolworths which – like its main competitor Coles – has been increasingly on the nose with consumers struggling with price increases.

The announcement also guaranteed another 24 hours of TV, radio and social media grabs of the CEO’s meltdown. Given he is (supposedly) staying in the job till September there was no need to rush – if the events were unconnected.

So what should have Banducci and the Woolworth’s PR team done to avoid all this? (And we preface this by saying we don’t know whether these steps were taken or not).

The performance suggests a lack of preparation. In terms of high profile and pressure media engagements, they don’t come any bigger than Four Corners. The ABC flagship has brought down CEOs and Premiers – devoting the interview and air time to delve deep into issues with a reputation for taking no prisoners.

Tough questions should have been anticipated, and answers rehearsed in practice runs.

Banducci must have undergone media training at some point and should have been told never to request comments not be reported after they had been made – serious journalists will never agree and it provides further material to highlight the mistake. Then walk out mid-interview does even more of the same, it is the gotcha TV moment that A Current Affair always seeks.

The likelihood Four Corners reporter Angus Grigg would quote former ACCC boss Rod Sims, a vocal critic of the big operators, was predictable, and positive responses developed. By dismissively referring to him as “retired, by the way” he appeared to be playing the man, not the ball. Then requesting the quotes “be taken out”, magnified the error.

Banducci could have said something like: “I have a lot of respect for Rod Simms but I disagree with his analysis and even in the time since he left the ACCC the market has evolved remarkably with more competition, particularly in the online space”.

As an aside, we’d also question the optics of the CEO of our major retailer dressing up like a Woolies checkout clerk for the Four Corners interview.

These are times you expect a calibrated response from a corporate leader. Amidst a cost of living crisis, it’s not a good look for consumers to see Woolworths just announcing half-year results featuring a jump in profits to nearly $1 billion.

The major supermarkets are facing an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission investigation into pricing decisions and their relationships with agricultural suppliers. And Banducci is scheduled to appear before a Greens-led Senate inquiry next month into food and grocery pricing.

Given the Four Corner’s performance, it will be interesting to see if Banducci takes the stand, but we hope he does his preparation if he does.

Retirement is an interesting announcement

Sharon Williams, founder and head of strategy at Taurus Marketing

Retirement is an interesting announcement after the disastrous interview on Four Corners on Monday and for Banducci, surely a little sad to end a career as such after his long tenure as leader.

The announcement occurs at a time when the brand is facing not just criticism from people in the street but multiple parliamentary enquiries and a probe by the competition regulator. It is a good warning to leaders to take responsibility for brand and reputation along with operations and if there are small trembles in your brand, as there have been lingering for many years with Woolworths under the CEO’s watch, act fast before the volcano erupts.

The Woolworths brand has been chipped away at for many years and as CEO, you can’t afford to let it slip. I would have thought that the Qantas and PwC public relations disasters in recent times would have been a lesson for all CEOs. Banducci needed to act. If he doesn’t and he didn’t, well, retirement is an option.

An attempt to set women up to fail

Amanda Rose is CEO of Entrepreneurial and Small Business Women Australia

The trend in appointing women to front beleaguered companies is being falsely perceived as a step forward for women climbing the corporate ladder when it should be seen as an attempt to set women up to fail.

Entrepreneurial and Small Business Women Australia CEO Amanda Rose says selecting Amanda Bardwell to take on the top job is another example of the ‘glass cliff’, where women are brought in to manage a business in distress or under investigation.

Recent examples include the appointment of new Qantas chief Vanessa Hudson who is currently facing off the ACCC in a court battle over misleading customers and governor of the Reserve Bank Michele Bullock who was chosen to replace her controversial predecessor Philip Lowe.

Of the former Senator Bridget McKenzie said she hoped Hudson had a “big mop” to clean up the mess left by outgoing CEO Alan Joyce.

Recent data shows men still significantly outnumber women in leadership positions with 22% of CEO positions being held by women.

Instead of giving these women the opportunity to take on a new vision for the organisation, they’re being put in the impossible position of having to fix a man’s mistakes.

It would be much fairer on women if outgoing leaders were required to front inquiries instead.

The outgoing CEO is much better placed to explain the organisation’s actions and line of thinking than someone who wasn’t even a key decision maker at the time.

We must not be fooled into thinking this is a great opportunity for women. This is not what we call diversity, this is what we call taking advantage or using.

In order to achieve real equality, companies must be willing to promote women to leadership roles in good times and bad.

The Ultimate Self-Checkout

Justin Kelly is a Partner at Media + Capital Partners

Woolworths boss Brad Banducci is the latest CEO to fall ingloriously on their sword after a botched media appearance in front of the cameras.

His resignation today follows a string of recent media speed bumps, including the Australia Day fiasco. Walking away from the cameras, mid-interview, as he did on Monday night, is enough to make any corporate communications professional wince. By the time his PR team convinced him to return to finish the interview, (the right thing to do), the damage was already done.

Banducci’s walkout also gave the ABC the ideal teaser for the show, which ended up attracting more viewers than Seven’s Australian Idol and Ten’s Australian Survivor. What could have been a dry episode about pricing ended up achieving an average national audience of 916,000 and a reach of 1.377 million — a remarkable feat for an ABC current affairs program.

It is an example, writ very large, of the importance of media training and being prepared for all possible scenarios ahead of an interview. When every word can be scrutinised and amplified across multiple platforms, the importance of being prepared properly cannot be overstated.

Given his remit of leading a major ASX-listed company of almost 200,000 employees, Mr Banducci would be no stranger to public speaking or talking to the media. However, even the most experienced CEOs must be adept at delivering their company’s narrative with clarity, consistency, and authenticity, no matter the headwinds or line of questioning.

Kelly Bayer Rosmarin, from Optus, suffered the same fate last year when the network went sideways and she went missing. When she did eventually materialise, she appeared to be disconnected, cold, and not across the details.

For any corporate leader, no less than the CEO of Australia’s largest private sector employer, there is simply no excuse not to be prepared and ready when the cameras start rolling.

There’s a saying that still rings true, especially when the microphone is live and the record button is on: “Perfect preparation prevents piss poor performance.”

Unfortunately for some of Australia’s corporate leaders, they’ve learned this lesson the hard way.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.