WPR Heroes & Villains 2022
It’s that time of year when we sit back with glass in hand, reflect and honour those communicators who have brought distinction and disgrace to their fields of endeavour.
I won’t say it’s been an easy year on the judging panel – with tears, tantrums and threats – but we’ve finally come up with a shortlist we can be proud of. All I have left to say is that the judges’ decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into (although we’d love a retweet or a like). Let’s get on with it.
JOURNALIST OF THE YEAR
We start with one of our most sought-after awards and our first nominee is Anne Applebaum of the Atlantic who deserves a hat tip due to her prescient warnings about the dangers of Russia and authoritarianism, both in Eastern Europe, where she now lives, and in her own country, the USA.
Tom Peck of the Independent also deserves acclaim for his political insight but, most of all, for his coverage of the Wagatha Christie trial on Twitter. As does Alex Wickham, now of Bloomberg, who really made his name with the must-read Politico London Playbook daily e-newsletter. Pippa Crerar, of Party-gate stories at the Mirror, has continued her stellar work as political editor of the Guardian, not least with her exclusives about the behaviour of a certain Dominic Raab.
But, in a year of conflict, it’s the war reporters who have really made their mark. In fact, it’s fair to say we’ve not had a year like this since the Fall of Saigon. Freelancer John Sweeney did a superb job in the early stages from his Kiev base and made a big, correct, call on day two that the Russians were in trouble.
However, my journalist of the year is Illia Ponomarenko, defence and security reporter at the Kyiv Independent. He has, at times, been uncomfortably close to the action in order to bring his readers and followers on Twitter the horror, human tragedies and triumphs of a nation. Stay safe, Illia.
COLUMNIST OF THE YEAR
So many to choose from, I barely know where to start. Marina Hyde has been her usual brilliant, caustic self in The Guardian and Matthew Parris deserves special mention for his two-footed tackles on a succession of Tory prime ministers and PM wannabes.
John Harris of The Guardian continues to shine a light on the state of the country outside the M25 with his Anywhere but Westminster series and Dan Hodges in the Daily Mail always provides an interesting counterpoint to the prevailing narrative.
But one man stands out this year, whether it’s writing for Conservative Home, The New Statesman or The Guardian. When he was culled from the Conservative Party, along with other heavy hitters like Nicholas Soames and Rory Stewart, the expectation of many was that David Gauke would retreat into obscurity. Instead, his insight, self-deprecatory humour and common sense have illuminated the extraordinary political times we live in and demonstrated how far from its traditional roots the Tory party has moved. Come back David, your party and your country need you!
COMMUNICATOR OF THE YEAR
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Martin Lewis was the right man in the right place at the right time as the country panicked over the rise in gas prices. It was clear to everyone from the outset (apart from government ministers, of course) that you can’t take on a man of Martin’s integrity and hope to win. His excoriating explanations of the depth of the gas price crisis spurred the government into belated action and almost certainly saved lives this winter.
Across the Atlantic, one leader has proven that it is possible to put country before party, morality above partisanship and, if necessary, to sacrifice your own political career for a greater cause. Congresswoman Liz Cheney’s assured stewardship of the January 6th Committee hearings shone a light on a dark corner of American politics. It has been a must-watch for millions of her compatriots and has gone a long way in helping to turn the tide against Donald Trump. In the process, she sacrificed her own political career, which is surely not over.
But for us, there can only be one winner of our communicator of the year award. Trade unions have been out of fashion for a while, but this year one trade unionist put the case for his members, got the public on his side and became a media and social media star. His put-down of Kay Burley, who attempted to equate a peaceful picket by his female members holding a small placard to the industrial unrest in the 1980s coalfields (“Does this look like the Miners’ Strike?”), went viral. As did his humiliation of Richard Madeley (“You do talk some twaddle, Richard”). Step forward Mick Lynch, secretary general of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, who might look like a bruiser (sorry Mick) but has proved that looks are no barrier to communicating with empathy and putting over a strong case for fairness and change.
USER-GENERATED CONTENT AWARD
We like a bit of UGC at WPR Towers and 2022 has given us one of the best examples ever. Apparently, what has really made the difference in Ukraine (apart from the Stinger missiles, of course) has been the quality of military intelligence supplied by – wait for it – old ladies with smartphones. Our octogenarian heroes have been wandering around the Donbas taking photos of ammunition dumps and tank formations under the noses of the unsuspecting Russians before going back to their flats to upload the images and coordinates to the Ukrainian MOD. Then they just sit back and have a nice cup of tea and a piece of cake while they wait for the drone strike. That’s modern warfare for you.
MOST PERPLEXING VIRAL SOCIAL
There really is only one winner. When my 13-year-old son started singing about an obscure chippy in Coventry, little did I realise he was part of a viral TikTok hit that took the world by storm and made Binley Mega Chippy the talk of, well, everywhere! TikTokers started flying in from faraway places (California!) to order a large cod and chips with extra mushy peas and, of course, to post selfies of themselves outside, much to the bemusement of the owners. Alas, Binley Mega Chippy went the way of most viral campaigns and was all but forgotten within a week. Such are the fleeting moments of fame in the social media age.
MISCOMMUNICATOR OF THE YEAR
A crowded field for this one is headed by Greg Norman, former pro-golfer and now head of the breakaway golf tour, LIV, which pays already multi-millionaire golfers staggering amounts of money to play in tournaments that nobody watches – all funded by Saudi Arabia.
The problem is Greg has none of the communication skills required of a CEO. He dismissed the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Istanbul embassy with a curt “We’ve all made mistakes”, and the execution of 81 men earlier this year was not something that bothered our Greg: “I heard about it and just kept moving on.” Apparently, Greg is now being sidelined by LIV before he can do any more damage.
When it comes to gaslighting though, the Russian media deserves a mention for misleading an entire nation. As does Gianni Infantino, president of Fifa, who managed to disprove my theory that it couldn’t get any worse than Sepp Blatter.
However, only one man this year has spent $40 billion, alienated a 7,000-strong workforce, trashed a brand, lost millions of users, crashed advertising revenues and been forced to admit that his costly acquisition might go bankrupt. Elon Musk, for me, was an obscure figure before buying Twitter as I couldn’t afford his cars and didn’t want to go to space. Now, he is our miscommunicator of the year. The only way is down, Elon!
EDUCATORS OF THE YEAR
A new category and one dedicated to those individuals who have gone out of their way to explain the complexities of the modern world to their readers or followers.
Former Australian major general Mick Ryan (@warinthefuture) has provided genuine insight into every aspect of modern warfare as conflict has raged in Ukraine, from the correct use of special forces through to the intricacies of drone warfare.
Brum’s own legal blogger David Allen Green (@davidallengreen) has continued to make sense of an area of the law he himself says should be boring but isn’t. It is his fortune, or misfortune, to be a constitutional lawyer in a time of almost continuous constitutional crisis.
David Henig (@davidheniguk) has continued to cast a shrewd light on the intricacies of trade policy and, dare I say it, the ‘B’ word (aka Brexit). Insight that many of us wish our politicians would listen to.
However, this year has seen two middle-aged blokes go to the top of the podcast charts and sell out the Albert Hall for a live show, while talking about everything from foreign policy to mental health issues. The Rest Is Politics podcast has become required listening across the political spectrum and has proved that there truly is more that unites us than divides us. Step forward former New Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell and former Tory MP Rory Stewart.
BEST HOT MIC MOMENT
The sadness of the Queen’s passing was accompanied by some anxiety about what the monarchy of Charles III would bring.
It turns out we have a new king who enjoys nothing more than a caustic aside or a show of petulance. Pengate (“God, I hate this”) was followed by that wonderful Liz Truss moment (“Back again, dear oh dear”), which is pretty much how we all felt one week later after the mini-budget. There’s a serious point here, though; he’s human, he gets pissed off with stuff and he’s worried about the state of the country. Deal with it!
PR COCK-UP OF THE YEAR
Where to start? It’s been a stellar year. The catastrophe that was the organisation of the Uefa Champions League final in Paris – with women and children being tear-gassed – was made even worse by the workings of the Uefa press office, which had a prepared statement ready blaming the fans. Class action lawyers now have thousands of hours of smartphone footage to prove them wrong. One hopes that the lawyers make Uefa pay.
Rainbow armbands for the World Cup in Qatar was a nice idea but if you’re going to take a stand or a knee, you really do need to be prepared to follow these things through. The craven backdowns from multiple European football associations in the face of Fifa threats of yellow cards proved what many have suspected all along: namely, that the primary driver for social activism is too often corporate or individual brand management, rather than genuine solidarity with the cause in question.
The reaction – or overreaction – to the Queen’s passing by many corporates was exemplified by Center Parcs going so far over the top it was risible. Families who had travelled hundreds of miles were told to pack up and leave as the holiday parks operator panicked at the thought of a three-year-old being seen to have fun in a sand pit or tuck into a burger during the state funeral. The social media reaction was brutal, deserved and left many questioning whether this is really what Her Maj’ would have wanted.
However, there is only one winner. When it was announced that Liz Truss was to do a series of regional radio interviews, comms experts questioned whether it was a good idea and many of us, metaphorically, got the popcorn in. The result was a car crash of epic proportions as Liz’s weaknesses were brutally exposed by well-prepared regional journalists that her PR team had grossly underestimated.
VILLAIN OF THE YEAR
There was a late groundswell of opinion that erstwhile Machiavellian political operator Gavin Williamson MP should be in line for this award, but the judges found that, despicable though his behaviour has once again been, we’d all be better off ignoring him.
No, there really is only one person who deserves the WPR Villain of the Year Award. He’s invaded a sovereign country, sent gas prices spiralling and committed war crimes.
His idea of a photo op is to sit at the opposite end of a 40ft table from everyone else. He’s being beaten on the battlefield and in the media by an adversary he once derided as a TV actor.
Most importantly, he has achieved the exact opposite of what he set out to do. Ukraine is stronger, more resolute and more committed to independence than ever. The Nato western alliance is about to get new members and Europe is rapidly weaning itself off its dependence on Russian gas. Never has the strong man of Russia looked weaker. Our villain of the year is Vladimir Putin.
PERSON OF THE YEAR
Which brings us to our Person of the Year Award – and it wasn’t even close. Great leadership nearly always means great communication. Think Churchill’s speeches, De Gaulle’s Free French radio addresses or the spiralling oratory of John Kennedy.
He made his name in a sitcom portraying the president of Ukraine and then, incredibly, was given the real job and greatness was thrust upon him.
When western allies prevaricated at the start of the Russian invasion, he stiffened the back of the western alliance. When the White House tried to persuade him to leave the country with his family, he scolded them with words that will go down in history: “I need ammunition not a lift.”
Like all great leaders, he is everywhere – on the battlefield, in the battered towns and cities, and in what must seem like endless meetings with foreign leaders.
Most of all, he has become the physical manifestation of a nation’s courage and determination not to turn the clock back and become a Russian satellite once more.
Our person of the year is the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.
The author: Tom Leatherbarrow is a director at WPR, specialising in strategies and content marketing for B2B audiences.