Corporate speak of the year award

Corporate speak is alive and well across business and government. It's usually deployed to show off, cover up a lack of real knowledge or to confuse the listener. Every year Jaqui Lane collects and reports on the worst corporate speak she has come across, and then lists the top 5 and winner for the year.

Corporate speak – the 2023 short list and winner

As 2023 draws to a close it’s time for my annual Corporate Speak of the Year Awards.

This year I’ve extended entries to MPs, government ministers and anyone who frankly tried to obfuscate to avoid telling the truth or was simply making a word salad because they didn’t know the answer.

There were sooooo many examples over the year it was hard to whittle down the top five. The winner, however, was a pretty easy choice. Let me know your thoughts.

The top five

1. Alan Joyce, Former CEO of Qantas

On being pushed out of the role after several spectacular examples of hubris Alan Joyce ‘decides’ to ‘retire early. Corporate speak at its best.

“In the last few weeks, the focus on Qantas and events of the past make it clear to me that the company needs to move ahead with its renewal as a priority,” Mr Joyce said in a statement.

“The best thing I can do under these circumstances is to bring forward my retirement and hand over to Vanessa and the new management team now, knowing they will do an excellent job.”

Yeah right. Thanks Alan. Having maxed out the balance sheet by denigrating your customers, launching actions against your employees, sold ‘ghost flights to your customers, made it next to impossible for us to redeem our COVID flights, so you could cash in your performance entitlements, you’ve left the Qantas brand in the toilet.

2. Daniel Andrews, Former Premier of Victoria

Responding to the 4th report into corrupt conduct in the Health and Human Services department Andrews adopted the well worn corporate speak strategy of disingenuous agreement, aka “I don’t give a rats what any report says, I’m just going to ignore it. I am untouchable.

‘We are grateful for that educational report and those 17 findings/recommendations. We will get on with that work and update you. There are no findings against anyone in this report, it is an educational report..the recommendations do go to a number of serious matters…

This way before the Victorian Ombudsman, Deborah Glass’ report into the alleged politicisation of the public sector in which, among many other things, she noted that:

“Creeping politicisation is a reality in Victoria, and requires urgent attention,” Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass said.

‘In one of the more intensive investigations conducted in the Ombudsman’s 50-year history, we interviewed 45 highly placed public officials and reviewed millions of individual records across more than a dozen agencies.

‘A key finding was the marginalisation of the public sector and the erosion of a core Westminster principle: an impartial public service that serves the government of the day while providing it with ‘frank and fearless’ advice. An example of this was the early assessment of the Suburban Rail Loop.

“It was subject to excessive secrecy and ‘proved up’ by consultants rather than developed by public servants. Its announcement ‘blindsided’ the agency set up by the same government to remove short-term politics from infrastructure planning,” Ms Glass said. “The lack of rigorous public sector scrutiny over such projects before they are announced poses obvious risks to public funds.”

And, for those who are interested, there’s some interesting information about the involvement of Luke Sayers in all this.

3. Andrew McLennan, Former Chairman of the ARU

Corporate speak often gets paired with sporting analogies (just don’t do this). It was some relief that McLennan didn’t resort to using rugby union/team sport analogies for his captain’s pick of Eddie Indi-Japan Jones. Instead he seemed to think that the very system he was head of and meant to be leading was the issue. (Granted the ARU has been a cot case for a long time).

“Don’t channel your anger to Eddie, channel it to the system that needs changing,”

That bloody system, again. This is the pathetic fallback of someone who refuses to take any responsibility for the decisions (sorry captain’s picks) they make while they are in the Chair.

This is the same ‘system’ that McLennan milked to pay for throwing parties with the Australian Ambassador in Paris AFTER the early exit of the Wallabies from the Rugby World Cup, perhaps underwriting a longer stay so he could share drinks with the Forrest’s in St Tropez. Methinks Hamish had eyes on a different prize, a place on the International Rugby Board perhaps? We’ll never know now.

And, of course, Eddie ends up the recycled coach for Japan. No surprises there, except for perhaps from McLennan who still hasn’t worked out Eddie Jones’ system…getting paid out of coaching contracts.

4. Tom Seymour, Former CEO of PwC

Luke Sayers, left. Tom Seymour, right before the implosion of PwC

We really shouldn’t be surprised that the head of an acoounting/advisory firm deployed corporate speak to cover up their unethical and potentially illegal behaviour in relation to confidential information it ‘acquired’ while one of their own was on an ATO advisory panel, commonly referred to as the tax leaks scandal.

In March 2023 he responded to the AFR reports about PwC’s issues that “the firm is having an on-going perception issue” and that there was only ‘one bad apple’ on the PwC tree. This after he contradicted evidence he gave to a Senate committee in February 2023 that up to 30 partners and staff were involved in sharing confidential government tax policy information.

Matters only got worse for Tom, they often do when you can’t keep track of the corporate speak you’ve used or the actual facts of the matter. The PwC matter then metastasised to the rest of the Big 4 accounting firms as further information came out that it wasn’t just a rouge Peter Collins…there were a multitude of partners and others involved, that it had been going on for years (under Luke Sayers’ leadership and involved some of the largest companies in the world and more.

It then resulted in the sale of PwC’s government consulting business for $1, yep, you read that right, to private equity firm Allegro Funds. This is the same business that Luke Sayers wanted to sell for $1 billion a few years earlier.

Some ‘perception issue’ Tom.

5. Tanya Pilbersek, Federal Minister for the Environment and Water

Tanya’s had a pretty good year….made some headway on environment and water issues, although the Murray Darling Basin water management is still a headache and policy settings for reaching 2030 and other climate targets seem to be caught in a parallel universe of policy statements and the reality of contradictory investment signals, NIMBY action groups and the Environmental Defenders Office. This somewhat chaotic policy/reality collision perhaps provides some context for her explanation of the new Nature Repair Fund.

What she said on Radio National with Hamish McDonald had me shaking my head in disbelief.

“It will be based on specific methodologies in the same way a carbon credit scheme does. Those methodologies will be recommended to me as the Minister. We’ll make sure the methodologies are consistent. The methodologies will be guided by ecologists and scientists and you won’t be able to get funding unless you use an approved methodology. The methodologies will be publicly available . . . and if they don’t work we’ll have a review.”

Nothing like a good methodology to make sense of, well, a methodology.

The winner is….

And, yes you’re right if you have spotted a pattern here. All but one is no longer in their role. Which just goes to show that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

Tom Seymour, Former CEO of PwC

Tom Seymour (left), Peter Collins (right)

Not only has he blown up his own firm, he’s presided over the interrogation of the Big 4 consulting/audit firms – a huge, positive unintended consequence I am sure, but so overdue.

In his governance review of PwC Ziggy Switowski noted that it was ‘full of cronyism and unchecked authority where senior practice leaders would talk in riddles”. It’s clear that neither the former CEO of PwC, Luke Sayers nor Tom, was taking any responsibility at all, although in Luke’s case this worked out quite well for his consulting business in Victoria, especially on the highly secretive and eye-popping $200 billion plus Suburban Rail Loop project.

Tom (and Luke’s) responses remind me of something Sam Bankman Fried is purported to have told Michael Lewis when asked about the risk attached to money in Alemeda Research.

‘No one ever asked about the risk engine.‘I don’t know what I would have done if asked. I would have done one of two things. Either I would have answered a different question, or I would have made a word salad.’

And there you have it: a word salad. That’s what corporate speak is.

I have a question though. Did Tom (and Luke) get to keep their annuity payment entitlements, and did many of the others implicated in the tax leak? Ahhh, I should know better… PwC will no doubt claim Legal Professional Privilege on this one. Of course this is linked to the payments retired partners continue to receive – more than often NOT disclosed to organisations and companies they go on to work for. A huge potential conflict of interest I’d suggest and something I covered a while back in this article, What’s missing in the PwC/accounting discussion.

It was great to see former ACCC Graeme Samuel present his view of the accounting/professional advisory firms on 21 December. He recommended that auditors should be banned from providing any type of consulting services to their audit clients and the corporate regulator should resume naming and shaming companies with poor audit quality.

And, the fallout continues. On December 28 Senator Deborah O’Neill had this to say about PwC and the professional services industry more widely.

‘Those in within the auditing, accounting and consulting sector seeking immediate reprieve from tis ongoing scrutiny should readjust their expectations.

Parts of the sector still seemed not to understand that members ‘demonstrably failed to meet so many key markers of ethics and professionalism that is should brace for further reform’ and that ‘the scale of misconduct in this industry…requires extensive and ongoing attention in order to reform.’

Some ‘perception issue’ Tom Seymour. But, congratulations. You’re my winner for 2023.

Happy 2024 to everyone.
Share your examples of corporate speak with me throughout the year and, be watchful over what you say and write.
If you’re thinking about writing and self publishing your book in 2024, you know where to find me.