PR: politics, pain, plaudits and predictions

Christmas celebrations and the party season is in full swing, writes Icon Agency's Mark Forbes, and it’s time to highlight the reputational laughs and learnings from the past year… and forecast the year to come.

Expectations of integrity and purpose continue to rise, along with the contortions of business leaders when they’re caught in the cross-fire. The core lessons of 2022 are that governance, risk management and quick and honest responses to crises are what really count.


Our political leaders did their best to live up to the public’s low expectations, with some notable exceptions.

Internationally, the social-media savvy Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy comprehensively flogged Vladimir Putin in the PR war, presenting a determined but very human face across media platforms. However, Putin’s iron grasp over Russia’s government and media enabled him to maintain support at home with nationalist appeals and Nazi conspiracy theories.

Finland’s PM, Sanna Marin, looked destined to be a casualty of social media, after footage of her partying and dancing went viral. She was attacked as undignified by some media commentators, but Marin made no apologies for having fun, and won the admiration of women around the world while also delivering a blow to cancel culture.

The UK looked to have a lock on the political own goal award, with Boris Johnston finally falling on his sword after more revelations about the infamous parties at No 10, held when the rest of the nation was locked down.

Boris was quickly surpassed by his successor, Liz Truss, who echoed Margaret Thatcher’s catch phrase of ‘this lady’s not for turning’, before frantically jettisoning a raft of ill-considered tax plans, and her Chancellor. She became the UK’s shortest-serving prime minister, resigning after seven weeks.

But ScoMo did his bit for Australia, revealing to a couple of journos writing a fawning book that he had secretly appointed himself to several Ministries, including the Treasurer, without telling his Cabinet. His justification, that only he could determine the response to COVID fell flat and he was censured by parliament. Take a bow, Scotty.


Notable PR failures included the clumsy handling of massive data breaches by Optus and Medibank, both reacting with a series of slow and inaccurate responses damaging reputation in the process. The governance shortcomings across the Crown and Star casino organisations were also painful to watch, both ultimately endingwith widespread resignations among directors and executives.

The PR team behind the CEO of Lark Distillery and former Grill’d supremo, Geoff Bainbridge, take out the 2022 Reputation Brown Eye Award for spruiking the most outlandish excuse for a CEO’s ice-fuelled, sex-crazed and profanity-laden behavior – ‘I was kidnapped in a Singapore hotel and this is extortion’.

Surprisingly, The Age endorsed the story, resulting in egg-on-faces all ‘round when News Limited proved the video capturing Bainbridge’s antics was actually shot in his South Melbourne bedroom.

And in a spectacular due diligence failure, Essendon’s new CEO lasted less than a full day in the job after the club realised his links to a church condemning homosexuality and abortion were in “direct contradiction” with the values of the AFL club.


The Socceroos however kicked goals on several fronts at the Qatar World Cup, releasing a team video condemning the country’s human rights abuses before proceeding to inspire Australia with underdog victories on the field.

Atlassian founder Mike Cannon-Brooks won the shareholder and public battle against AGL, the nation’s largest coal-fired power generator, with a sophisticated social, media and outreach campaign. He now effectively controls the company and its exit from coal is accelerating.

But the Reputation Golden Eye prize goes to the founder of the Patagonia apparel brand Yvon Chouinard, who announced he would give away the company to bolster the fight against climate change.

Since 1985, Patagonia has dedicated 1 per cent of its revenue to fighting climate change, but now Chouinard, who has a net worth of $1.7 billion, is transferring his family’s ownership of the company to a trust and a non-profit organisation. Every year, profits will be distributed as a dividend to help fight the climate crisis.


Focusing our Reputation Eye forward, here are some predictions for 2023:

● The rise of the virtual influencer
As ambassadors continue to discomfort brands, endorsements are proving to be a double edged sword – from Kanye West’s anti-Semetic rants and bizarre antics, which have seen his sponsorships dropped by numerous brands, to stars like Australian cricket captain Pat Cummins, who objected to team sponsor Alintas’s involvement in fossil fuels. The brave new world of virtual influencers is already with us and there is more to come from avatars who aren’t going to embarrass brands (or themselves) in public.

● First Nations to the fore
Although the debate over an Indigenous Voice to Parliament is already attracting criticism from conservative ranks, awareness and acceptance of Australia’s First Nations people will grow. Increasingly the real facts over Australia’s occupation will be highlighted and accepted, as Aboriginal groups and human rights groups speak out on the Voice, and in parallel debates around truth and justice commissions and a treaty. Expectations for change will grow and there will be numerous opportunities for corporates to add their voice and demonstrate purpose.

● Climate caravan gathers pace
As the battle to control global warming heats up, more corporates will jump on the net-zero bandwagon. Watch out for more greenwashing claims, with the discrediting of Australia’s offset program likely to blow a hole in the emissions reduction targets of many organisations.

● Continued cyber attacks
Between criminal opportunists and the rise of several malignant state actors, the data breaches that recently hit Optus and Medibank aren’t about to disappear. Many more organisations may yet be exposed for a lack of preparation and risk management.

Mark Forbes, director of reputation, Icon Agency


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