If you’re powerful, you already know who John Connolly is. If you’re not, you almost certainly won’t. And that’s exactly how he likes it.
The only photo of him on the web is 20 years old; there are no profiles on him in the newspaper archives. Most years, his name doesn’t appear in print at all — except when he’s moonlighting as a motoring columnist.
“He moves in mysterious ways,” says a PR veteran who’s worked closely with him. “It’s odd to even talk about what he does. He’s so discreet.”
Connolly knows you don’t have to be a household name when the country’s most important CEOs and chairmen — including media heir Lachlan Murdoch and BHP Billiton boss Jac Nasser — see you as a business oracle.
“Self promotion doesn’t get you very far at the big end of town,” Connolly, 64, tells The Power Index in a rare interview. “What gets you there is your advice proving to be right.”
According to renowned spin doctor Sue Cato: “Many boards see his views as the final word in politics, government and the media. ”
PR legend Noel Turnbull describes him as “the best high-level strategic consultant currently working in Australia”.
Connolly’s called in for tough love when problems arise — from hostile takeover bids to new taxes. He’s also helped CEOs soften their image by telling them to highlight their guitar playing skills or eat with the plebs in the staff cafeteria.
“In most people’s minds, public relations is Absolutely Fabulous: it’s about chicks putting out press releases and doing things to get publicity,” he says. “That’s a really good business but I’m hopeless at that.”
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Ever the enigma, Connolly, who looks like a taller, leaner Tony Bennett, refuses to comment on his work for specific clients. But we’ve been able to piece some of it together — and it’s a sight to behold.
First, there’s his connection to the Murdoch empire. Connolly advised Rupert on News Corporation’s relocation from South Australia to New York; he’s helped The Australian build bridges with big business; and he’s been behind Lachlan’s forays into media ownership at DMG Radio and Ten.
Then there’s his work for the miners — especially his long relationship with BHP Billiton, the world’s third-largest company. He counselled BHP’s head honchos on the 2001 Billiton merger and the (aborted) 2008 takeover of Rio Tinto. When the Rudd government announced its original mining tax, Connolly took charge from a war room at BHP’s Melbourne HQ, devising a strategy to kill it off. We all know how that ended up.
The list goes on: a 20-year stint as adviser to construction giant Leighton Holdings; a decade counselling ANZ; helping Wesfarmers take over Coles and Bunnings; spinning for Macquarie Bank when Alan Jones launched an on-air jihad against its Sydney Airport purchase.
Not that everything has been a success — Ten’s share price, for example, has tanked under Lachlan Murdoch’s watch — but business keeps rolling in.
“John has been involved in some of the biggest campaigns around,” says Noel Turnbull, “but his role has been virtually invisible. I often laugh when I hear people talking about how so-and-so has masterminded some campaign or other and I think, hang on, John did that.”
Before opening his own firm in the early 1990s, Connolly was Asia Pacific CEO of Hill and Knowlton, then the world’s largest PR company.
“I had in my mind from the beginning that there was an opportunity for something more like a QC model than a big law-firm model,” he says. “To look after a small number of large clients and give them personal service.”
Thirty per cent of Connolly’s work is now for overseas clients: UK banks, the New York Stock Exchange, miners in Indonesia. The Power Index understands he did crisis management work for the US-based Newmont Mining when five of its mine managers were arrested and charged with polluting Indonesian waters in 2005. Mining industry sources also tell us he spun for PT Freeport in 2003 when two US school teachers were shot near an east Papua gold and copper mine.