Telstra’s lesson in marriage equality – corporate social responsibility is not to be toyed with

Telstra thought supporting marriage equality was something that involved adding a logo to an ad - a statement that could be easily walked away from. It's not. And in doing so Simon Canning believes the brand has breached an important public trust.

Telstra gay marriageThe double reverse ferret by Telstra this week on its support for marriage equality looks more like a business that suddenly did the math than one that had a Road to Damascus moment and realised it had simply failed to understand the importance of a social movement.

It was just a few short weeks ago that Telstra joined its name with dozens of other major Australian businesses in an ad published by Australians for Marriage Equality under the headline “Join the growing list of corporate Australia supporting marriage equality”.

AME marriage equality adIt seemed a no-brainer; Telstra’s logo sat nestled aside blue chip giant such as Optus, Qantas, KPMG, David Jones, Google and the Commonwealth Bank, to name just a few.

But within Australian society there are elements which are deeply threatened by the concept of marriage equality, or who see it as an affront to their own beliefs.

Last week The Australian revealed one of these groups, the Australian Catholic Church, which decided to throw its weight around by approaching Telstra and questioning its support for marriage equality via a blunt warning that Telstra’s business with the church was at risk.

“You may be aware that the Catholic archdiocese of Sydney is a significant user of goods and services from many corpor­ations, both local and inter­national,” The Australian reported the letter as stating.

“Undoubtedly, many of the Catholic population of Sydney would be your employees, customers, partners and suppliers. It is therefore with grave concern that I write to you about the Marriage Equality for Australians campaign.”

Telstra responded privately with the assurance that it would no longer publicly align itself with the campaign.

What has followed has been a public relations fiasco as the telco attempted to protect its relationship with the church while in the process walking in front of a bus of public outrage and condemnation.

Comedian and content producer Dan Ilic voiced the feelings of many in the community who said Telstra’s apparent opportunistic support for marriage equality and the ease with which it abandoned it was an outrage.dan ilic telstra paper

Ilic, and thousands of others, decided to abandon the brand. Telstra now had a new problem. A big one.

CEO Andy Penn attempted to settle concerns within Telstra with an all-staff email last week saying the company did not want to add fuel to the fire.

Well, that worked.

So to the announcement of the double reverse ferret from Penn saying it had all been a mistake and the telco would again be an “active supporter” of marriage equality.

Some might suggest Telstra’s gymnastics over the past week are merely a case of a major enterprise trying to find its moral compass.

But that moral compass should have been well and truly dialled in the moment it said ‘ yes’ to supporting Australians for Marriage Equality.

Clearly it wasn’t when presented with the image of thousands of Catholic organisations such as schools and churches taking its business elsewhere.

And like any large organisation sensing a threat to its cash flow, it moved to mollify the critics.

It would seem that when that move became public, and another cash flow source – everyday customers – started walking, someone whipped out a calculator and realised what was on the horizon.

Action was needed and Penn delivered.

It’s hard not to be cynical about yesterday’s announcement by Penn. The track record on this issue is clear.

But in the era of corporate social responsibility the pledging of support for issues important to millions of Australians is not to be treated lightly.

Telstra breached a public trust, got caught, and has tried to wriggle out. It didn’t. Hopefully it has learned from this fiasco.

Simon Canning


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