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Learning from Olivia Newton-John

12 September 2022 at 11:16 am
Neil Pharaoh
Neil Pharaoh looks back at the life of icon Olivia Newton-John and what we can learn from her advocacy and charity work. 

Neil Pharaoh | 12 September 2022 at 11:16 am


Learning from Olivia Newton-John
12 September 2022 at 11:16 am

Neil Pharaoh looks back at the life of icon Olivia Newton-John and what we can learn from her advocacy and charity work. 

I had the tremendous privilege and honour of working for Olivia Newton-John for a decade on her government engagement, advocacy and campaigns. Newton-John was passionate about cancer wellness, cancer research and medicinal cannabis and over the decade working with her and government we had many tens of millions of dollars wins from both state & federal government.

Through my journey I learnt five invaluable lessons from Newton-John, which apply to any ambassador, patron, or networked person in our social purpose sector.

  1. Always find time for people
  2. Live your values, speak from the heart
  3. Follow advice, but then do it your way
  4. Build effective teams
  5. Stuck to the right beliefs and values before they became “popular”

First, always find time for people. One of the most amazing things that would happen when I was in Parliament House with Olivia Newton-John was, despite back-to-back meetings, heavy schedules, meeting PM’s and opposition leaders, health minister and senior public servants, Newton-John always found time to speak to people. When she heard from a staffer that one of the attendants in the Senate was going through a cancer battle, we were asked to track her down, and Newton-John would spend a few quiet moments just talking to them, sharing stories, wishing they too would thrive through their cancer journey.

When Newton-John heard that Hans the German was practising in the Great Hall at Parliament House, she made sure we stopped by, and she sat down and watched the rehearsals, loving every minute of this impromptu performance.  When someone from visitor services mentioned to a friend of mine, she was a Newton-John fan, that meant another detour to say hello.  I have never met anyone so generous with their time – and who found time to make every single person feel special.  Her desire to connect taught me a lesson for life; it opened so many doors and created such positive goodwill, something everyone in the social purpose sector can do.

Live your values and speak from the heart. Newton-John was beating the drum of medicinal cannabis before it went mainstream, and was open and honest about using it, how it helped her, and she urged government to change the rules around dispensing it.  When she spoke of her journey with cancer, there was no glossing over the bad, the ugly and the hard.  When discussing the ideas, radical at the time, that hospitals needed to be places of wellness and not just sickness, it aligned with her values, and a generous heart. I have seen many fake people and in particular lobbyists in and around Parliaments in Australia, guns for hire who have no passion or experience about the wares they sell – whoever pays them they will shop their wares.

The irony is that a few minutes with someone who is genuine, passionate and speaks from the heart, and sharing real stories is better than an entire gaggle of lobbyists.

Follow advice, but then do it your way. I have never worked for a client who listens attentively to everything I had to say, who reflected on the discussions, who understood the opportunity, challenges, insights and expertise.  We would sit for hours with her team, whether around research, cancer, cannabis, her agents and managers because Newton-John wanted to ensure she was across everything – sharp as a tack, inquisitive and interested, briefs would always be read, notes always understood, but when it came to speak to an audience, everything we spoke about was included, but the presentation, passion and voice was 100 per cent Newton-John. The lesson here for advocates, campaigners and community organisations is your voice, and stories are powerful, and you do not need a gun for hire to sell it for you – what you need is to do the hard work, read the notes, get across the detail – and just like preparing for a movie script or song, when you know the words, make it your own.

Build effective teams. Newton-John always had great, smart people around her, her Manager and Agent, Michael of over three decades, the head of her Cancer Research and Wellness Centre, Jonathan who had known her for almost 20 years, her husband, John, her long time PR experts in Australia, Angela Ceberano (one of the best PR people you will ever come across) were the key team for government engagement, advocacy and campaigning.  These were some of the smartest, sharpest people I have worked with, everyone knew their role, their contribution, and where they were experts, and all trusted the other completely. The highly effective nature of this dynamic was something you do not normally see in the cut, thrust and egos of government relations, campaigning and advocacy.

Stick to the right beliefs before they become popular. In 1981 Newton-John recorded the hit song Physical, the music video won a Grammy for Video of the year in 1983.  The film clip was edited in many countries because of two of the men hold hands towards the end, and two more leave with their arms around their shoulders (I think the film clip was even banned in Utah in the US).  The film clip aired around the Australia and shot to number 1, when being gay was still illegal in most states and territories here. (SA was 1975, ACT was 1976, Victoria 1980, and others then followed After the film was released).  So here was Australia’s number one “gal” openly supportive LGBTIQ+ rights in a movie clip, when it was still illegal in most of Australia.

Whether it be support for the LGBTIQ+ community, of commitment to medicinal cannabis before it became “mainstream” – Newton-John showed time and time again that she was on the right side of history, by doing what she knew as the right thing, even if it wasn’t popular, or even legal at the time. In an era of Insta and TikTok influencers who ride different trends for popularity, Newton-John knew what was right, and stuck to it. A lesson for all of us around commitment, diligence and values.

Rarely do you get the pleasure, honour and career highlight of working for somebody of Newton-John’s calibre, commitment and passion. In every single meeting, with every single parliamentarian or person, you bought everything to the room, with a smile, diligence and an amazing team – these are lessons invaluable for others advocating or campaigning to government, and absolutely set the bar and standard for any ambassador or patron in a social purpose organisation in Australia.

Happenings on the Hill is a fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Focusing on both Federal and State & Territory politics, stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.

Neil Pharaoh  |  @ProBonoNews

Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy.

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