What on earth would Derek Handley have done as CTO?

The business year: Construction woes, CTO sagas, and so much corporate jargon

Business editor Maria Slade reflects on lessons learned from her truncated career in corporate PR and the enduring importance of journalism.

Not so long ago I did a stint in the communications department of a large organisation which shall remain nameless… Oh bugger it, it was Fonterra.

The corporate world was new to me. The first thing I noticed was that it involves many, many meetings. The second revelation was that its inhabitants speak a unique and often impenetrable language, and Google became my friend as I sat in those multitude of meetings surreptitiously searching terms like ‘BAU’. My PR colleagues eyed me as if I was a slow learner when I later admitted I hadn’t known what it meant. I should have realised at this point that corporate communications was not for me.

Just so you know, BAU stands for ‘business as usual’ and corporate people use it a lot. It means stuff that is considered part of the job, as opposed to project work or dealing with a crisis. (Fonterra knows a thing or two about crises).

During the many interminable meetings I took to writing these linguistic gems down in the back of my notebook. It had the double advantage of making me look busy and keeping me entertained.

People would refer to ‘laddering up’. I never did figure out what this means – possibly things linking to other things, or possibly nothing at all. They also quite like ‘deep dives’, which is a slightly more self-explanatory term for having a thorough look at something. I was particularly tickled with the concept of having to ‘socialise’ unpopular proposals with people.

There was a lot of talk about ‘buckets’ (again, I remain at a loss), ‘shifting the dial’, ‘end-to-end solutions’, ‘our strategy journey’, and my personal favourite, ‘we’ll need to go amber on that’ (slowing down on something).

Do people in corporate environments use these buzzwords to deliberately obfuscate? Sometimes. More often it is a product of laziness, a shorthand way of communicating rather than putting their shoulder into thinking a situation through and expressing it accurately.

I’ve now come home to journalism where people snort if you talk about ‘reaching out’ or ‘gaining traction’, and the PR experience has taught me two important lessons.

The first is the value of my journalistic skills. The ability to digest large amounts of complex information quickly, get to the heart of the issue and explain it in a clear, balanced and readable way is rare, and yet that is the journalist’s stock-in-trade.

The second is that even in these dark times of media fragmentation and industry disruption journalists still wield a lot of power. I saw firsthand the panic when a reporter so much as mentioned the dairy co-operative in terms that were on the wrong side of neutral.

I also witnessed Fonterra leaders make decisions, against best internal advice, in favour of the bottom line and at the expense of the wider New Zealand community. This would occur particularly in the run-up to financial results announcements when the pressure was on to dress the numbers up in their best bib and tucker. Undoubtedly that pressure hasn’t lessened since Fonterra reported a loss of $196 million for 2018, its first ever annual loss in its 17-year existence.

It reinforced my conviction that journalists are never wrong to question large organisations, to be a burr under their saddle and, as is The Spinoff’s special ability, to poke the borax. The old journalistic mantra that ‘if you’re not annoying them you’re not doing your job’ remains as true as it ever was.

There have been some big business stories this year. One that stands out is the ill-fated quest for the country’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO). First we couldn’t find one. Then we thought we’d found one but due to former minister Clare Curran’s inability to use a diary that ended badly. Now the government has decided we’re not having one.

On the surface this may seem like a political story, but the real questions in my view are why on earth anyone thought we needed one and what exactly was a CTO going to do?

There have been investigations. Many Kiwis would have been surprised to read that high profile social entrepreneur Ray Avery has failed thus far to deliver his LifePod low-cost baby incubators despite $2 million in donations and acres of media coverage.

Speaking of well-known Kiwis, in May it was revealed that the IRD is chasing the interests of socialite ex-pat businessman Eric Watson for $112 million in unpaid tax.

Auckland’s property market finally plateaued, not that you’d know it from reading the New Zealand Herald whose parent company NZME also owns the real estate listings site OneRoof.

We had the perplexing $45 million failure of Ebert Construction at the height of a property boom, with its subsequent far-reaching effects. Meanwhile we’re awaiting the judge’s decision in the trial of Mainzeal’s directors including former prime minister Jenny Shipley following the firm’s collapse in 2013.

The Spinoff has conducted its own investigations, such as this piece from yours truly about the sorry meth testing saga and why we still don’t know how much P is too much.

There will be plenty coming up in 2019 to write about. New Zealand might be seen as a stable little South Pacific haven in comparison to the ructions of Brexit and the Trump administration, but these events affect us in our back pocket. Political uncertainty is causing turmoil in global markets and sending KiwiSaver balances south.

New Zealand’s economy is growing at around 3% a year which in international terms is not too shabby but the benefits are not trickling down to everyone. Jacinda Ardern’s government is trying to rectify that. Watch this space.

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On the topic of doing good we are seeing the inexorable rise of the social enterprise, even though New Zealand has no legal definition or structures around what this new class of enterprise is. A report due out early next year aims to address this.

On the small business front, as the government continues its quest to increase New Zealand’s paltry spend on research and development (R&D) it is introducing a system of R&D tax credits. What will this mean for small firms, and what qualifies as R&D?

The Spinoff promises faithfully that in 2019 it will keep asking the hard questions and never refer to ‘quarterly cadence’ or ‘change management conversations’.

Feliz Navidad.


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