Peter O'Sullivan | Influence 100

Peter O’Sullivan 

GM, Group External Comms & Community 
Woolworths Group 



This may come as a surprise to shoppers in the UK and the US, where a company of the same name shuttered its retail stores two decades ago, but Woolworths is Australia’s most valuable brand, according to a recent report from consulting firm Brand Finance.
Peter O’Sullivan has been responsible for managing the company’s reputation for the past four years, first as head of public relations, community and sponsorship and now as GM, external communications and community. Before that, he led the New South Wales business for PPR, one of the country’s leading public relations agencies, and served as managing director of the Australian operations for leading UK consumer shop Frank.
Recent years have not all been plain sailing for the company, which admitted in 2019 that it may owe its employees as much as $300 million as a result of underpayments, but it did earn high marks for its response to the coronavirus, after CEO Bradford Banducci took a highly visible leadership role, letting Australians that there was enough food and toilet paper for everyone—and offering temporary jobs to laid-off airline employees.

Can you share a moment in your career when you saw PR's direct impact on business performance?
There has been no greater impact than this year. 2020 has been a year in which PR has helped play a critical role in helping deliver quick-to-market messages to consumers and stakeholders during an unprecedented and challenging period. PR has been the go-to comms discipline used to inform customers around critical brand messages, particularly in the food retail environment during a time of consumer uncertainty. Ensuring customers were delivered accurate information quickly helped build trust, which had a direct impact on the way the business performed during this period.

What are the comms industry's biggest challenges and opportunities in the year ahead?
The industry has played a critical role in helping brands navigate unchartered territory in 2020. It has an opportunity to continue to play a strong leadership role in helping business navigate its way forward as we all continue to live in a world with Covid and manage the longer-term impacts of the pandemic. The main challenge will be ensuring the comms industry can continue to evolve, as well as attract and retain talent to ensure it continues to innovate the way businesses are communicating to their customers.

What have you most admired about this industry in 2020?
The central seat at the table that communications has had in helping navigate the challenges of the year. Getting the message right for the customer has never been more important in helping build trust. The brands that have delivered on that front have used the agility of their comms and PR teams to execute that message.

What has most disappointed you about this industry in 2020?
Not so much disappointment, but the challenges brought on by Covid-19 has seen many strong agencies lose some of their most talented teams due to a reduction in client spend. I’m hopeful the industry can recover and adapt quickly from this.

How have you switched off from work and maintained wellness in lockdown?
Switching off has been a challenge given the nature of working in communications for a supermarket and food retailer during a period of Covid. During the early peak in Australia, there would be a new issue to address, multiple media to respond to or proactive communication to send to customers seven days a week. To switch off post the early peak, I made a commitment to friends and family to spend as much time as possible with them. Since restrictions have eased where I live I’ve made the most of ensuring my partner and I get out for lunch and try and explore new areas of the city where we live.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has helped you get through this year or provided inspiration?
I am someone who enjoys live entertainment and theatre as a way of switching off. It has been a challenge to find an alternate outlet to provide the same inspiration outside of work, but I have enjoyed the opportunity to watch international productions of live theatre online during the last few months, particularly from the National Theatre in London. It’s not a substitute for live performance, but has kept me connected to an area of interest away from work. Like many others I’ve also got hooked on bingeing shows on TV, Succession being the latest.

If I wasn't working in marketing/communications, I would be...
Working in aviation or trying my luck in the theatre!

Sum up 2020 in one word.