Lady Jane Edwards is a storyteller at heart – and over the course of a distinguished career spanning more than three decades in the media and communications industry, she herself has become an integral part of Brisbane’s story.
Edwards began her professional life as a journalist, but has since become one of Brisbane’s most prominent business identities. In a time when most Australians wouldn’t have been able to tell you what public relations was, she founded BBS Communications Group, which is now one of the most successful firms in the industry.
But that’s barely scratching the surface of Edwards’ career. She’s also a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, the Australian Institute of Management and the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Journalism and Communications.
She was also the founding Chairman of the annual Premier’s Literary Awards, and the first woman in 103 years to Chair the Board of Trustees of the Queensland Art Gallery. She has served as Deputy Chairman of Opera Queensland, and as a director of the Queensland State Museum, the City of Brisbane Investment Corporation and the Lord Mayor’s Business Advisory Board.
Oh, and she also serves as the Honorary Consul for France in Queensland, and recently received France’s highest honour, La légion d’honneur, for her services to the French community.
She is, by any measure, a Brisbane institution – and, like so many Brisbane institutions, her origin story goes back to Expo 88.
Speaking at Brisbane Business Hub’s latest On The Couch With event, Edwards looks back on her journey from Expo 88 to today – and her vision for Brisbane’s future.
The spirit of ‘88
Widely hailed as a turning point in Brisbane’s history, World Expo 88 was an international exhibition that drew the eyes of the world to Brisbane in 1988. As the leader of the communications team, it was up to Edwards to shape the world’s perception of what it saw.
“I was a journalist,” Edwards remembers. “I’d been with News Limited for a long time, and I came up to Queensland to do a year with the ABC. I was then offered a job with the Expo Authority when there were only 12 people there. I went in as the ‘media manager’, but the role just grew and grew and grew until I ended up with 75 staff and a $35 million budget.
“I guess I just lived on adrenaline, coffee and fear. It was an intense time – I remember I would speak to my Dad, who was an army officer, every other day during Expo. He’d give me excerpts from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ and Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ about how to deal with your enemies.
“But I managed to bring together a great team of people who gave 110 per cent every day for nearly four and a half years to pull it all together.”
It’s hard to overstate the impact Expo 88 had on Brisbane. It spurred the redevelopment of a largely derelict industrial site in South Brisbane that would eventually become South Bank Parklands. Perhaps even more importantly, it helped to put Brisbane on the map as a global destination.
“Back then, you always had to explain to the rest of the world where Brisbane was,” Edwards says. “I remember being in Vancouver once and saying, ‘We’re having an Expo in Brisbane’, and people said, ‘Where is that?’ I said, ‘It’s in Queensland’, and they said, ‘Queensland… are you sure? Is that the name of a place?’
“There was a lot of that. But by the time Expo ended, everybody knew where Brisbane was.”
While Edwards can see parallels between Expo 88 and the 2032 Brisbane Olympics and Paralympics, she says there are also some significant differences.
“The Expo ran for six months, so it was a very long process,” she says. “We were open for 12 hours a day, for 183 days, and we had to make sure people didn’t get tired of it, so the experience had to be refreshed constantly.
“I think another difference is that there’s great enthusiasm for the 2032 Olympics and the changes they’re going to bring to the city. Whereas with Expo, people don’t remember that there was a lot of suspicion about what it was, and whether it would be of any benefit. There was less support for the concept in the community, initially.
“In the end, it was a great success, and it’s a credit to the entire community that it was. It changed the culture of the city enormously.
“Of course, we have South Bank as a result of it. But I also think it helped create a group of incredible professional teams – property developers, engineers, architects, medical specialists. It was a real renaissance for the city. And I think if you look at the people who were part of that renaissance, and who are on the cusp of retirement now, they’ve changed the face of the city.”
Getting down to business
In the wake of Expo 88, rather than returning to her journalism career, Edwards decided to apply her communications skills to the burgeoning field of public relations. She launched her consultancy, BBS Communications Group, in 1989, and spent a lot of her time in those early years explaining what it was she actually did.
“When I started, consultancies like mine didn’t really exist,” she says. “So my team and I really pioneered a lot of things that are now standard practice around Australia. I would do a lot of presentations where I would talk about PR… I’d talk about ‘communications’, and people thought that meant I connected telephones. They weren’t quite sure what I was offering.
“But I think after Expo, when there had been so much attention on Brisbane, people here were beginning to realise how useful it was to have somebody to promote their brand and to assist their directors in raising their profile.
“I also think people were getting more competitive, and they wanted to raise the profile of Brisbane-based firms on the national stage, and then internationally. So I just built up slowly, through reputation and word-of-mouth, and more work started flowing to the firm.”
BBS Communications Group is now one of the largest firms across Australia, New Zealand and the Asia-Pacific region. It’s recognised for its advisory work in government relations, crisis and issues management, brand strategy, market development and management, community engagement, media relations, and change management strategy.
The consultancy has often worked with businesses involved in construction, which comes back to Edwards’ keen interest in community building.
“I particularly enjoy working on projects with engineers, architects and planners,” she says. “It’s still a great feeling to see something on paper, and then see it come out of the ground and be used by the public.”
For all of Edwards’ past successes and accomplishments, her sights are still set firmly on the future – and on the opportunities that lie ahead for Brisbane.
“Brisbane has changed fundamentally over the last three decades,” she says. “We’re no longer a big country town, and if I hear someone refer to Brisbane that way one more time, I’m literally going to scream. We need to change the narrative, because this is now a hub of great research, technology, innovation and start-ups.
“I’d like to see more emphasis on the talent that we have here. Brisbane has a very well-educated population full of clever, innovative people, and I don’t think we’re constrained by a lot of the hierarchical traditions that you see in other cities. If you want to do something, you can just do it.
“We’ve got 10 years to reconfigure and rejuvenate the city, and take it into the next phase of its evolution. It’s a great opportunity and a golden time for us to make the most of ourselves. I think what I’d like most is for Brisbane to be regarded as a very contemporary, global city where people from around the world aspire to come and live.”
Edwards says initiatives like the Brisbane Business Hub, which connects Brisbane’s business community and provides them with workshops, mentoring, digital resources and co-working spaces, are crucial to fostering Brisbane’s emerging entrepreneurial talents.
“I have nothing but respect for the Brisbane Business Hub,” she says. “If I were starting out now, I would certainly be coming here to engage with the staff, look for contacts and take advantage of the expertise that the Hub brings together. I see it very much as an incubator of talent.”
Of course, Edwards herself has helped to incubate plenty of young talent over the last three decades. Her BBS alumni are now based around the world, with many working as communications advisors to public figures and industry leaders – and ultimately, that’s the legacy she’s proudest of.
“I think I’ve fearlessly taken on roles over the course of my career which were not ordinarily available to young women, and I’ve certainly done them my way,” she says. “But I think my real legacy is all of the wonderful people I’ve had the privilege of working with. When I see their careers flourishing, way beyond anything I’ve achieved, then I feel I’ve made a contribution.”
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