Grill’d, wasted and basted - a PR fail

Outside Grill'd store, purple overlay with 'Reputation Eye' text in top right corner

It’s a dream story for a journalist and a nightmare for any organisation, a leaked video of a CEO smoking a meth pipe, in his underwear, making lewd and offensive comments.

How the story emerged has sparked a feud between Australia’s two largest media companies, undermined the reputation of a leading journalist, raised questions about the actions of a communications expert and created a crisis for one ASX-listed company.

The high flying career of Grill’d co-founder Geoff Bainbridge has come to a shuddering halt. Not just because of the drug use and bizarre conduct, but also his tactics in attempting to deflect the damaging revelations.

Bainbridge, who had parted company with Grill’d and taken on the role of chief executive of Lark Distilling, an ASX-listed alcohol company, attempted to lie his way out of a mess and was exposed.

Panic must have set in when he was approached by the Australian’s tenacious Sharri Markson last month, who said she was planning to publish a story detailing videos she had obtained showing his drug use.

Bainbridge got his lawyers to call back to urge The Australian not to send the videos to the Lark Distilling board and threatened defamation if it did. He said one video had been manipulated and was unverified and claimed another two videos were fake.

Markson later said “acting in good faith, we agreed to Bainbridge’s request not to publish in Wednesday’s newspaper and gave him another 24 hours to respond to our questions”.

But instead, Bainbridge resigned from Lark and his communications expert, the high profile Lahra Carey (who also sits on the board of the Carlton Football Club), took a version of the story to The Age’s chief reporter, Chip Le Grand - a tactic to control the narrative, but certain to infuriate The Australian.

The Age article stated: “He confirms it is him in the video but says he isn’t an ice user and doesn’t know how he came to have the drug or what else he was given.”

The video was not shot recently in Australia, but in Singapore in 2015, Bainbridge claimed. He said he had met a woman at a bar and went to a “gathering”, claiming the night was a “jumble” and he couldn’t recall details.

The next morning he was allegedly confronted by two men who had video of the night’s events. He said the video was then used as part of a “sophisticated, continuing and recently escalated extortion”.

Bainbridge claimed that he made 14 payments totalling $9000 over the subsequent years and even provided records of financial transactions and text messages demanding money from a Malaysian WhatsApp account. He also provided a report by Control Risks, a UK-based risk consultancy, which analysed the purported extortion attempt and advised him how to respond.

It didn’t take long for the story to fall apart under probing from the Herald Sun and The Australian. Analysing the videos, they identified a series of unique fixtures in the bedroom where it was shot, which were also featured in real estate pictures of Bainbridge’s home, which he had purchased in July 2020. The Australian put one of the videos up online - Bainbridge was alone, and making unprompted statements about how high he was.

The Age quickly backtracked with a piece from Le Grand, pulled the original story and editor Gay Alcorn issued a comprehensive apology, “we and several others were seriously misled by Bainbridge,” she wrote, “we got it wrong, and we are sorry”.

Lark, although they moved quickly to replace Bainbridge, may face further consequences. The company’s shares took a massive dive on the news and it soon emerged that a letter had been sent to its chair and company secretary two years ago, detailing concerns about Bainbridge’s drug use. We suspect that law firms specialising in shareholder class actions will be sniffing around.

Lahra Carey was ducking and weaving when confronted by the AFR. “I don’t have any view on it and I don’t want to be a story,” she said. “I am not the story. I am not a story. I really have nothing to say.

“Isn’t it done? Why is this of interest? Where’s this going? Why don’t you think it’s over?” Her company website doesn’t shine any further light on the matter - according to Google it is “temporarily unavailable”.

It seems clear that both Carey and Le Grand were misled by Bainbridge, what is unclear is the level of due diligence shown in considering his claims. It’s uncertain if either had watched the videos ahead of publishing. One look should surely have raised doubts.

As part of his explanation to The Age Mr Bainbridge made some comments that he and other participants in the damage control exercise could well ponder: “You make a bad decision one night and it cascades into another bad decision. At some point you are like ‘f---, where is this going?’”

By Mark Forbes, Director of Reputation

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