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How a Tobacco Lobbyist Won over CSIRO

By Stewart Fist

In part 2 of this exclusive series, Freedom of Information requests of CSIRO internal correspondence reveal the machinations behind the eventual appointment of a former senior tobacco executive and lobbyist as the science organisation's Director of Communications.

CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Geoff Garrett and his Deputy Dr Ron Sandland had previously engaged Di Jay as their first Director of Communications. Recruited from Medibank Private, she had no experience in science or media and lasted barely a year before resigning.

This story begins with Garrett recording that Donna Staunton had made contact with him in person, from which she became aware of CSIRO’s “communications” problems and suggested that she could help. Staunton had developed a friendship with Garrett before she was employed even as a consultant by CSIRO. On 14 February 2003 Staunton emailed Garrett:

Dear Geoff,

Happy New Year. I do hope things are going well with you. I read with interest the media report this morning, which gave some insight into some of the issues you are continuing to face. I hear that John Reed has left but that you had replaced him with a very good candidate. If there is anything I can ever do for you, please let me know. Set out below are my new website and email details. Wishing you all the very best as always.

Donna Staunton
Principal
Staunton Consultancy

Staunton with Garrett
Marking an embarrassing PR failure for CSIRO, Staunton beat a retreat with Garrett (obscured) from CSIRO's Discovery Centre in Canberra on 6 May 2004 after Prime Minister John Howard abandoned this venue for delivering a major announcement on research funding when ANU students picketed the CSIRO venue in protest over funding issues.

Garrett extended the contact within CSIRO by emailing Sandland the next day, 15 February 2003:

Ron: This is a seriously classy lady in this comms space (out of our price range in last year’s hunt) but would be great for you to chat with, just in general and around strategy. She’s now an independent consultant, and Sydney-based. Let me know if you’d like me to suggest this, in my reply.

The reference to Staunton being “out of our price range in last year's hunt” refers to a head-hunting exercise for the Director of Communications which had been conducted by the placement firm SpencerStuart in 2001. Despite the CSIRO claiming to find no documents associated with this earlier recruitment effort in answer to my FOI request, it is now clear that she was selected for interview and considered for the post. Clearly from Garrett’s comments, the recruitment process had reached the early stage of negotiating her salary.

By 2003 she was looking for consulting work.

One day later (16 February 2003) Garrett responded to Staunton:

Hi Donna. Nice to hear from you!

Things are going well but some recent changes in the communication domain. After a year, with some good progress, Di Jay has decided to take up a CEO job with a peak body (town planners).

Our Deputy CEO Dr Ron Sandland has taken over responsibility for the communications function. He is Sydney-based. I have mentioned you to him and perhaps there would be the opportunity to catch up at some stage.

[Personal note about Garrett’s son Matt in London.]

Warm regards
Geoff

Staunton was quick off the mark with an email on 19 February 2003, to Garrett:

Geoff
Sorry to hear about Di Jay (especially after the effort you went through to find somebody for the role). As you know I would be very happy to help you if I could from a consulting point of view [FOI redaction] I will contact Ron Sandland at some point to have a chat about any communications needs he might have.

In the meantime I wish you all the very best.

Donna Staunton
Principal
Staunton Consultancy

Deal Settled

Staunton and Sandland met and struck a deal for her to work as a consultant. In an email and draft agreement sent on 7 May Staunton formally advised him of her fee scale and outlined how she saw her future role with the CSIRO.

[Extracts]
Dear Ron,

Thank you for the opportunity for Staunton Consultancy to work with CSIRO to provide communications support. I confirm that you require assistance in actively managing CSIRO’s reputation by communicating and influencing internal and external stakeholders. You are seeking to create and nurture an environment in which CSIRO is better able to achieve its strategic and commercial objectives. These stakeholders obviously include the media, employees, government, unions, the scientific community and the general public…

[A list of “challenges” follows.]

Professional Fees
Donna Staunton, as principal of Staunton Consultancy will commit to CSIRO on a day-to-day basis up to three days per week for the next three months (or until the communications function is once again adequately resourced or unless agreed otherwise). The normal daily consulting fee for Staunton Consultancy is $2500.00 per day but for the purposes of this assignment Staunton Consultancy will reduce that fee to $22,500 per month (excluding GST). Out-of-pocket expenses such as travel, accommodation and taxi fees will be charged to you at net.

On 15 May 2003 Staunton emailed “a further proposal” to Sandland, including these extracts:

Having spent two days with CSIRO I have now had the opportunity to get a “feel” for some of the issues that are facing the organisation at the present time and I thought I would outline the broad scope of my role as I see it…I see the scope as follows:

  • closely following the media and assisting with media management generally and more specifically during the roll out of the strategic plan and change communications
  • developing a proactive plan to assist with the reputational issues surrounding the office of the CEO…

I suggest that I be available to CSIRO three days per week… I would also be “on call” to assist as needed… My fees would be as set out in my earlier correspondence.

Donna

Staff Advised on Consultancy

Sandland accepted her brief and high charges and sent a broadcast email to “Communications” staff on 23 May 2003 about changed arrangements and responsibilities. He concluded a nine-paragraph memo thus:

I will assume the strategic direction and decisions of the Communication area during this period. As well as the current team that is working with me, in the short-term I will be appointing an external consultant (Donna Staunton) to offer high level strategic communication support and advice.

Dr Ron Sandland (left) and Dr Geoff Garrett. Credit: Peter Pockley

Staunton sent Sandland (pictured here with Garrett) a carefully-crafted form of words that he would use to describe her background (avoiding the word “tobacco”) and her duties. Sandland accepted her draft statement and sent it back to her with internal dissemination to “Communications” staff only on 27 May. There was to be no public statement to the media.

From Ron Sandland (ODCE)
To: To: Communications staff and Donna Staunton
Tuesday 27 May 2003

As you are aware I have engaged Donna Staunton to provide advice on a range of issues related to CSIRO’s communication function. Donna will be providing me with strategic advice in the areas listed below. She will also be working with Geoff Garrett directly on a number of these issues. As Donna gets into her brief she will need information from various sources around the Organisation but particularly from within the current communications area. I would ask you to give Donna your strong support in providing her with any advice or information she may require in carrying out her role.

Donna has an impressive track record in corporate communications, most recently with AMP and as a private consultant and an excellent professional reputation. Her role will be coordinated through the Office of the Deputy Chief Executive. The role she is playing has my strong support and also the support of our Chairman and CEO. The duties to be performed will initially focus on

  • Provide short-term high level support to the Media Group and media strategy through the post-budget and Senate Estimates period, ensuring our strategies are sound, pro-active and effective.
  • Provide strategic advice on the positioning and focus of the media Group and on how we might optimise our performance in that domain.
  • Provide support and advice to the CEO and Senate Estimates Team to enhance June Senate Estimates performance
  • Provide advice on communicating the key elements of the change rollout.

Head-hunting for Full-time, Permanent Position

The CSIRO was still looking for someone to fill the permanent position of Director of Communications, and, as the chief consultant to Garrett and Sandland, Staunton advised them to use the head-hunting firm Korn/Ferry. It may have been just coincidence, but the head of Korn/Ferry in the USA was Craig Fuller who had been Staunton’s direct superior when she worked for Philip Morris, and the Senior Partner in Australia looking after the CSIRO recruitment program was Robert Webster, who held directorships on the Board of both WD & HO Wills, and British-American Tobacco (Aust).

Political Veto on Endorsed Candidate

Staunton was not listed by Korn/Ferry in the first round of candidates in 2003, and the two interview panels enthusiastically endorsed Steve Murphy, the media advisor to Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett. Both Chairman Catherine Livingston and other board members met and approved Murphy, and he was told that he had the job. However, out of the blue, Science Minister Peter McGauran vetoed the appointment for reasons Garrett and Sandland refused to commit to writing.

Inexperience and Tobacco Background

Staunton was manifestly lacking any experience in either science, the very core of CSIRO, or the media, the prime outlet for CSIRO to the public. Equally controversial and most damaging, though, was her well-documented work, first as a lawyer acting for clients in the tobacco industry, including publicly denying any link between smoking and cancer, and then transferring to full-time lobbyist and senior executive for multinational tobacco in Australia and USA.

She became known for publicly denying the addictive nature of nicotine on television, and she only left Philip Morris in 1999 when her primary role in organising the industry's fight-back against regulation, and in manipulating scientific witness statements about smoking and health, were revealed by the online publication in the USA of seven million industry documents.

Staunton Selected with her Conditions

An internal announcement was made of her full-time engagement, initially on an Acting basis.

Friday 24 October 2003
From Ron Sandland
To Executive management Council; Communicators-All

Donna Staunton

I have pleasure in announcing that Donna Staunton will assume the role of Acting Director of Communications from Monday 27 October. As you may know we had embarked on an extensive recruitment process through search consultants Korn/Ferry International and we were close to announcing an appointment late last month. Unfortunately, this appointment did not proceed and given the significant challenges facing the Organisation in the coming months I have decided to put in place this arrangement. During this period which I expect to be for 3-4 months, the external recruitment process will continue.

Donna has been working as a Consultant with the Organisation since May this year. She will now devote approximately three and a half days each week to the Organisation…

Please join me in welcoming Donna into her new role. Her past legal, corporate and government experience will be of enormous value to the Organisation.

Sandland avoided any mention of her already well-documented and controversial role in the tobacco industry, and there was no mention of experience in science or research.

In the next round of selections Staunton was not initially listed as a candidate, but, at the last moment, she indicated that she would like to be considered. She was then passed through a truncated interview and selection process where previous convoluted confirmation procedures weren’t followed, and given the job. But only after the work conditions were modified to suit her requirements:

  • the job to be based in Sydney, not Canberra
  • a higher salary + bonuses (she eventually got ca $330,000 pa plus expenses)
  • a 4.5 day week with one of these days worked from her home (she is a single mother)
  • membership of the CSIRO's Management Committee with the title “Executive' Director”.

One FOI document indicates that she was chosen mainly because of her first-class political contacts, and was the ideal candidate to get on well with CEO Garrett. Other candidates were judged to have better credentials in all the other categories.

Nowhere do CSIRO or Korn/Ferry selection records reveal Staunton's instrumental role as Executive Director of the Tobacco Institute of Australia, nor do they mention that she brought to Australia well-known academics and 'tobacco-scientists', some of whom had fake credentials. For example, under the pretence that he was on a lecture tour for the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies, she imported Canadian lobbyist Dr John Luik who worked almost full-time for tobacco and was the expert in countering advertising bans and plain-packaging legislation. Such activities had been well-documented on a web site managed by Professor Simon Chapman of the University of Sydney.

Conclusion

The choice of Staunton must have been known and approved by the Science Minister, and it was clearly passed through Cabinet where some members were very familiar with her tobacco-political activities. Given the blackballing of Steve Murphy (from Kennett's office) you'd also expect correspondence to be exchanged between the Government and the CSIRO, if only about the extraordinary salary and bonuses, but none has emerged so far from my FOI requests.

In short, Staunton appears to have been a behind-the-scenes political appointment, but there is no evidence that it paid off with benefit to CSIRO: she became a never-ending subject of internal and external criticism. Since enhancement of their scientific reputation was supposedly the primary requirement for this CSIRO position, they failed miserably.

Tobacco Experience Well-known

CSIRO management was clearly well aware of Staunton’s controversial “baggage” in working for the tobacco industry before she was recruited as Director of Communications. Before she was confirmed in the full position, she sent an email to Sandland on 27 January 2004 with a suggested defensive statement for him to make about her appointment. This emphasised anything but tobacco and had obvious authoritarian overtones.

Donna has not worked for a tobacco company for over five years.

She is an intelligent and capable businesswoman who has held over a number of years very senior positions within the private sector. For the last three years she worked in her own consulting firm advising clients such as The World Bank, Pfizer, IAG, Mission Australia and MIA.

She is on the Boards of the National Breast Cancer Centre, Workcover (NSW) and The Global Foundation. From all accounts she makes an excellent contribution to all.

Previously she was a member of the Senior Management Team at AMP and prior to that held the position of Vice President Corporate Affairs at Philip Morris. She represented the interests of the Philip Morris Group in Australia and New Zealand. The Group has interests in food, tobacco, confectionary and beer. In 1994 she was CEO of the Tobacco Institute. She held that position for just over a year.

Donna has degrees in both nursing and law.

Ten years ago Donna expressed views about smoking and addiction. She now accepts that nicotine is in fact addictive and that smoking is the major cause of preventable illness in Australia. She does not intend to say anything more about the matter and nor do I.

Full-time appointment

Staunton quietly transferred to full-time (4.5 days per week) employment with the title of “Executive Director”, and Sandland, as Acting CEO (in absence of Garrett), simply informed the Board at its February 2004 meeting that:

The process of selecting a Director of Communication has been finalised and an offer made. There are several outstanding issues to be resolved before the successful candidate accepts but these are not expected to be a barrier to acceptance.

The successful candidate has received strong endorsement from the Minister’s Office.

On 2 March 2004, Sandland advised the Executive Management Council of the appointment, giving her background:

In the past ten years she has worked in a number of organisations facing intense public scrutiny. At AMP Limited she held the post of Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communications and was responsible for the operations of that function in Australia, NZ and the UK. Prior to that she was Vice President Corporate Affairs at the Philip Morris Group of Companies, the world’s largest packaged good company. She was previously the Chief Executive Officer of the Tobacco Institute and a Senior Associate at Clayton Utz Solicitors.

Donna is on the Boards of the National Breast Cancer Centre, The Global Foundation and Workcover NSW.

This discounted her tobacco links and made out that she was only a PR for Philip Morris which was pitched as a food, beverage and tobacco conglomerate. In fact, she had only ever worked for the tobacco industry – and for over a decade she was in a top executive lobbying position where persistent science-denial was the primary requirement.

The End Game

Continuing troubles with CSIRO’s communications, including a disastrous appearance on ABC TV’s Four Corners by two CSIRO scientists who refused to comment on the central issue of climate change (13 February 2006), eventually forced Garrett to commission an internal review over claims that scientists were being “gagged”. Staunton began to focus on non-media issues, and, when Sandland was questioned on this in Senate Estimates, he explained that she was now working at a strategic level as a member of the Executive Council.

On Friday 9 June 2006, the classic day-of-the-week to issue a “bad news” release, Garrett released a media statement announcing Staunton’s resignation saying:

It would be an injustice if Donna's contributions to CSIRO were masked by seemingly constant criticisms, for example around a former role in industry.

Apparently even then, he couldn't bring himself to use the word “tobacco.”

And Sandland makes no comment in his book about the circumstances of Staunton’s departure.

Blogs in this Series

The first blog in this series is How a Communications Saga Rocked CSIRO.

The third and final blog in this series is Science Lost In CSIRO's Matrix.

© Stewart Fist, Lindfield, NSW. All statements made here are backed by documentation and some sample documents are quoted as direct copies (italicised), many having been obtained through Freedom of Information requests. Photos by Peter Pockley.