Back to Listing

Kim McKay AO

05 April 2011


“…when Oprah talked about the Queensland floods, it raised off her website millions of dollars… that’s pull. She’s the real deal.\"

Kim’s communications career path has brought her into contact with all manner of opportunities, contacts and networks. She has been ‘in charge of collecting garbage’ as the co-founder of Clean Up Australia and the World, worked for the National Geographic and Discovery channels in the US, received an AO for distinguished service to the environment and community, is on a number of boards, and, in conjunction with the public relations business eckfactor, looked after media and stakeholder relations for Oprah’s Ultimate Australian Adventure, 2010.

“The path I’ve taken has been non-traditional and it’s had its negatives as well its great positives. I’ve been able to be very adaptable but, in being part of so many different things and because around a third of my work has been voluntary some things may have suffered a little in the sense of overall financial net worth,” says Kim, whose quick to admit taking opportunities is in her nature and that investing in real estate has been her best financial decision.

“I often say to people my right arm has an injury (and it actually was injured in a teenage car accident). It means my hand’s forever shooting up to say yes. I’ve never been afraid of saying I’ll do that. I didn’t, however, have the vision in mind of being a managing director in that larger corporate sense. That wasn’t my goal.

“My advice to someone now would be to think about those goals earlier and spend time making sure of what you want. I think it’s important to have a clear path and that is certainly not to say what I have done is a negative,” says Kim, whose professional and personal story is detailed and vivid, covering continents and global networks.

10 pound Aussie

In 1965 when all the 10 pound Poms were coming to Australia, Kim’s family moved to London. Her father, a toolmaker by trade, had progressed up the management ranks and was sent to set up a UK office. Travelling by ship via Singapore and Ceylon, as it was known, they went through the then open Suez Canal and on to Europe.

“I went from playing in a backyard dominated by a Hill’s Hoist and long summers spent at the beach with my parents to a profound understanding there was this amazing world out there… and that it was an unsafe world at times. Passing through the Suez we saw soldiers armed with machine guns. I’d never experienced anything like that in Australia,” says Kim, whose family returned to Sydney’s Northern Beaches four years later.

Garbage collector

“From school I went on to do a degree at UTS in communications majoring in PR, journalism and sociology. I’ve always melded those disciplines and as my understanding of communications deepened I began working in a much broader marketing space,” Kim explains.

Back in the 1980s, working in event based public relations on the Australian leg of the BOC Challenge solo around the world yacht challenge, Kim met yachtsman Ian Kiernan. Plagued by the amount of plastic waste he had seen during the race and sailing on the harbour, Kiernan was shocked by our own “tide line of broken glass and plastic”.

Remembering a clean up he had seen in Hawaii some years earlier (where people got out with bags and picked up the rubbish), Kiernan approached Kim to see if organising a similar event around Sydney Harbour was possible.

“My answer was let’s do it,” says Kim, and so the story goes, she swung back around to the IBM golf ball and wrote a letter to the then Minister for Ports to begin the process.

“The Minister wrote back three months later to say it wouldn’t be necessary as they already did that,” Kim explains in disbelief.

Undeterred, she and Kiernan went ahead and organized the first clean up of Sydney Harbour on January 8, 1989.


Thinking through the campaign, Kim could see there wouldn’t be a project if no one knew about it and no one turned up. So, instead of spending 10 per cent of her small budget garnered from sponsors on marketing and 90 percent on running it, she turned the equation on its head.

“It was all about communication, getting people out there and getting them to see they could make a difference,” says Kim.

And it worked. 40,000 people turned out.

“I still say, jokingly, that it was one of the best days of my life which is pretty sad because it is about garbage.”

The campaign, Kim believes, was the first time an environmental issue had been treated like a consumer product. By the time she stepped down in 2009 from her deputy chair role, Clean Up had gone worldwide under her direction. The campaign now runs in 120 countries and has UN backing. In 2011, around 700,000 volunteers (including schools day) participated in the Australian campaign.

“Fashioning it as a product made a huge difference,” says Kim. “It made it accessible and we certainly unabashedly marketed it in the first years for kids so they brought their parents along. But there was a strong issue behind it and it was a real issue. Here was our beautiful harbour not being treated properly and that soon moved to waterways in general and the environment.

“Our approach was very holistic. We weren’t saying you’re a bad company, you need a black mark, or you’re a bad government. It was about saying we all own this and we can do something about this. We can all be part of doing some good. It was a very important approach to take.”

A sense of humour

Marguerite Julian, who now owns Stellar public relations, was one of Kim’s first employers and believes Kim’s abilities running the Clean Up concepts, powered the campaign’s success.

“Kim graduated from UTS shared dux of her course with a friend, Amanda Little. Amanda has followed a more traditional career path, moving through large corporate PR firms to become managing director of many of them. Kim’s path has not been so straightforward nor has she stuck to the owner operator route. Instead, she’s moved around, and she’s always been very involved in social and sustainability issues. With all her contacts and knowledge, this will really be Kim’s decade,” says Marguerite.

“She has this innate ability to think things through very seriously. Working in combination with co-founder Ian Kiernan they made the perfect team. She also has a great sense of humour and can see the funny side of herself. I think that’s very important for someone like Kim,” continues Marguerite, “because her personality and the issues in which she gets involved could be all consuming. Her sense of the ridiculous keeps her on track.”

Corporate Australia’s real issues

It does not, however, stifle her passionate opinions on, for example, the benefits of public speaking and the rudeness of corporate Australia where workers hide behind email, do not answer queries or calls and are generally impolite. Both things she believes are about a lack of communication skills.

A member of Toastmasters when she was young, Kim views the skills it provided her in public speaking – formulating and expressing an argument, telling a story – as an important training ground, impressing on her the importance of communicating with an audience.

“Public speaking teaches you to express yourself in a succinct and meaningful way. I think that is an incredible benefit,” says Kim.

“Most Australian business people –­ and they’re nearly always men,” notes Kim with an air of exasperation, “can’t speak. I’ve attended many business occasions and cringed as senior Australian business leaders get up and read a speech.

“It’s not acceptable to read your speech and you would never see an American or European business person do the same thing. They understand the importance of communication. They know you need to engage an audience, to look at people and understand what eye contact is about and body language, and about projecting who you are and what you believe. Australian businessmen should be embarrassed. They’re not delivering what they should be. It is only when someone inspires you that you follow,” says Kim.


‘Following’ doesn’t strike me as Kim’s thing, and that first impression is quickly confirmed when we get onto her time with Oprah in Australia and working with Harpo Productions, Oprah’s company.

This was a job not focused on generating publicity but managing it – everything from choosing which media to register to how events were managed around the country.

“It was a really intense three weeks working 20 hours a day,” explains Kim.

“We liaised with Harpo and also the partners, Tourism Australia and Qantas, the state tourism offices, sponsors, the Opera House, the NSW Government. In terms of our team, we were tight, small, which is what Harpo wanted.

“I have now met three of the top ten women in the world: Oprah, Gail Kelly and Hilary Clinton. Meeting Oprah was an amazing experience and the whole thing showcased Australia really well. In that second show, when Oprah talked about the Queensland floods, it raised off her website millions of dollar… that’s pull. She’s the real deal.”

Kim McKay features in Westpac’s The Power of 100. Her True Green series of books written with Jenny Bonin are published by ABC Books.

Useful Links

“Most Australian business people –­ and they’re nearly always men – can’t speak. I’ve attended many business occasions and cringed as senior Australian business leaders get up and read a speech.”




  • Rachael McKenzie

    Rachael McKenzie 9 years ago

    I am so pleased Kim McKay is being featured this month. I had the pleasure of meeting Kim at the 1 Million Women, 10,000 Teen launch last week. Kim is an extremely engaging speaker and kept the 600 young teenage girls (and myself) at the launch enthralled.