Public and corporate affairs managers in major companies were once considered little more than mouthpieces. Now, the best operatives report directly to the CEO, have a seat at the decision-making table and earn serious dough. Here are five of the country’s most influential in-house spinners and advisers.

5. Geoff Walsh — special adviser to BHP Billiton CEO Marius Kloppers

Hired as BHP’s head of public affairs when Labor swept to power in 2007, the former ALP national secretary is now working part time as a special adviser to CEO Marius Kloppers. Walsh is famous for his permanent parking spot at Parliament House and reputation for navigating Canberra’s corridors of power. During the stoush over Kevin Rudd’s mining tax in 2010, it was Walsh who met with ALP powerbrokers such as Karl Bitar to convince them to water down the tax.

Hired by Laurie Oakes to report for the Sun News Pictorial (now The Herald Sun), Walsh went on to work as a senior adviser to prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and as a diplomat in Hong Kong. More recently, the Melburnian served as Victorian premier Steve Bracks’ chief of staff and as managing director of the PR/lobbying firm Gavin Anderson & Co.

4. Robert Hadler — general manager of corporate affairs, Coles

Hadler is regarded as the Paul “Red” Adair of corporate affairs: he’s a master at putting out fires. A former economics correspondent at The Australian, Hadler spun for NAB during its $360 million rogue currency trading scandal in 2004 and AWB during the wheat-for-weapons imbroglio. Past stints as as deputy director of the National Farmers Federation and head flack at food giant Goodman Fielder made him the standout candidate for the Coles corporate affairs position when it became vacant in early 2009.

Since then, Hadler’s faced many challenges — farmers angry over discounted milk prices, criticism over Coles’ ownership of over 2000 poker machines, demands for a floor price on alcohol in the Northern Territory — but has not put a foot wrong.

3. Matthew Percival — general manager of public affairs, AMP

Given AMP is the country’s largest retail and corporate superannuation provider, and has almost a million shareholders, Percival occupies one of the most important corporate affairs roles in Australia.

The veteran spin doctor is unknown to the general public, and almost never appears in the media, but has a formidable reputation among the masters of the universe cloistered around Martin Place. Percival, who has spun for AMP since October 2000, has previously worked as head of public affairs at Colonial Limited, Carlton & United, ANZ and Coca-Cola.

2. Olivia Wirth — group executive for government and corporate affairs, Qantas

On the last Saturday of October 2011, Alan Joyce assembled his five most senior advisers for an emergency 8am meeting and outlined his plans to ground the entire Qantas fleet. One of those five was Olivia Wirth.

Six hours later, Wirth rang Julia Gillard’s chief of staff Ben Hubbard to inform him of Joyce’s dramatic decision. In the PR maelstrom that followed, Wirth fronted the media, backgrounded journalists, advised Joyce on media strategy, workshopped advertising campaigns and liaised with politicians and their staffers. Her strategy of constant media engagement ensured the public heard Qantas’ side of the story as well as the unions’, and won her public praise from her boss.

Before joining Qantas in 2009, Wirth was executive director of lobby group the Tourism and Transport Forum. She previously worked as a media adviser to Joe Hockey during his time as minister for small business and tourism.

1. Mark Ryan — director of corporate affairs, Westfield

Don’t let his surname deceive you: the one-time senior adviser to Paul Keating is very much a member of the Lowy clan. Much more than just a spruiker, Ryan has been a trusted adviser to the shopping centre mogul and football fanatic for almost 20 years. A member of Westfield’s nine-person global management team, Ryan also helped set up the Lowy Institute for International Affairs and remains a director at the influential think tank.

Ryan was a key player in the Orange Grove affair of 2004, a scandal over the NSW Labor government’s decision to block a rival shopping centre from opening near Westfield Liverpool. The Independent Commission Against Corruption later found Ryan “was at best indifferent, possibly misguided, and at worst mischievous” in raising corruption allegations against the Orange Grove developers with Bob Carr’s chief of staff.

*To comment or for more visit The Power Index

Peter Fray

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