If you’re caught in the middle of a media shitstorm, Sue Cato’s the spin doctor to call. She’s smart, she’s steely, and her Blackberry contacts list contains some of the country’s biggest names in business, politics, the arts and media.
A polarising figure, some in the PR industry dismiss her as a “show pony” and a “pooper scooper” whose biggest skill is “schmoozing the big end of town”.
“I’m surprised by the number of people who don’t like her or don’t understand her,” says a male friend. “She’s a woman who plays a man’s game and blokes don’t like that.”
But even Cato’s harshest critics can’t accuse her of dodging tough issues. Just look at some of her most recent clients: disgraced David Jones CEO Mark McInnes; Tasmanian tree-shredders Gunns Ltd; controversial photographer Bill Henson; job-slashing Pacific Brands CEO Sue Morphet.
That’s why — despite a striking physical resemblance to Eddy Monsoon, the bombastic Absolutely Fabulous PR consultant played by Jennifer Saunders — she hates being called a publicist.
“Publicists work with rock stars and sell product,” Cato tells The Power Index. “That’s not what we do.”
Veteran spin doctor Ian Smith, whose lobbying firm Bespoke has a partnership with Cato Counsel, describes her as “a committed, talented individual who plays the long game. She doesn’t have the myopic view that so many in the media and politics do. She’s not easily fazed.”
Cato — who’s up at 4am each weekday scouring the morning news — especially relishes being involved in hostile takeover bids. Private equity giant TPG Capital, best known for its $1.4 billion takeover over of Myer in 2006, is a long-time client. So is Gloucester Coal, which announced a proposed $6 billion merger with Yanzhou Coal last December.
Cato declined to discuss her work with specific clients with The Power Index. But we can reveal she has been advising the Reserve Bank of Australia on its response to the Securency bribery scandal. The RBA paid her $24,950 for communications advice last year.
Although she’s constantly on the phone to journalists, Cato’s name almost never appears in print. Strategic leaks, off-the-record briefings and old-fashioned stonewalling are far more effective.
“If you see my name in a story involving a client, generally there’s been a stuff-up,” she says. Indeed, there have been some stuff-ups.
Cato, who has a long association with the Fairfax family, is regularly called in by Fairfax Media to spin its message and advise on internal communications. Last year, a draft memo from Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood confirming the sacking of 82 subeditors was sent out to journalists with a mess of Cato’s track changes still visible.
In 2005, Media Watch revealed that one of Cato’s PR consultants, Graham Cassidy, had been calling talkback radio stations and praising the much-maligned Cross City Tunnel as the “best thing that’s ever happened”. At the time, Cato was giving communications advice to Cross City Motorway, the tunnel’s owner and operator.
On a 2010 episode of the ABC’s Q&A, Cato bewailed that the Tasmanian hung parliament was leaving major projects, including the proposed Gunns pulp mill, in limbo. She didn’t disclose that her firm was doing PR and lobbying work for Gunns.
Nevertheless, Cato maintains: “You never do anything that’s lacking in truth.
“Bullshitting just leads to devastation. Everyone thinks what we do is spin and bullshit. That’s crap; we actually tell the truth.
“Our job is to understand: what is the problem, what is pissing people off? It’s about getting to the root cause of the problem and dealing with it.”
Politics, not PR, was Cato’s first love. A child of the tumultuous Whitlam Era, she was leafleting and manning street stalls for the Liberal Party in Earlwood (a suburb in Sydney’s inner west) before the age of 10. She was later hired as an adviser by her future husband Ian Kortlang, then chief-of-staff to NSW premier Nick Greiner.