Telstra and marriage equality: when the bandwagon loses a wheel

Dan IlicTelstra is today facing a backlash over its decision to step back from the debate over gay marriage. Dan Ilic argues that the telco has taken a major risk with its reputation by suddenly jumping off the bandwagon. 

Remember when it was cool for companies to have a social conscience? Save the environment, reduce carbon, fair trade this and organic that?

And, of course, marriage equality; everyone loves equal rights? right? Well, almost everyone… 

Jumping onboard the idea that people should be treated equally sounded great to the majority of people around the country, some polls had support for marriage equality at 80%, and a market of 80% of Australians sounds great to every chief sustainability officer.

So, making a token gesture and jumping on the band wagon seemed like a great idea – great for customers who align with those values and great for employees who support marriage equality. It’s a no-brainer.

The various brands that paid for Australian Marriage Equality’s full page ad in The Australian last year.

A list of the various brands that paid for Australian Marriage Equality’s full page ad in The Australian last year

A couple of years ago marriage equality seemed to be a debate that would bounce around the walls of parliament house. Confined to NGOs, religious lobby groups, politicians, and people who cared. Arguments about whether different kinds of post-dinner desserts would or wouldn’t be made for different types of people.

Then, arguments about which room different people could and could not go into to shit out that cake – even if they’ve had a bit to drink and urgency is a priority – would be played out in the safety of Canberra.

These questions are asinine, but complex and they are deserving of debate by asinine and complex people called ‘politicians’.

Up until Tony Abbott’s captains call for a plebiscite, the issue of marriage equality would be battled out in the bloodied walls of parliament house. The rest of us, corporations included, would be sanitised from the fight.

But the battle has moved from Canberra to where actual real people live. The bandwagon has hit a speed bump.

It’s now in the streets. And the quality of the debate over the next year will be significantly reduced, with both sides battling for the ‘hates and minds’ of everyday people.

As the dialogue heats up the ‘no-brainer’  has become ‘brain-dead’.

Now being bullied into walking back their support for marriage equality, Telstra is set to lose another kind of customer, one that championed them regardless of their spotty coverage and insane prices. I was one of them.

I stuck with them because they serviced the bush, invested in great community projects across a range of diverse issues, and they even have a little acknowledgment of country in their stores. This was an Australian company for all Australians.

Corporations such as Telstra work hard on branding in order to reach out to community to prove they’re good citizens. People learn to love these brands, they wear them like a new pair of good-fitting pants.

Telstra has in previous years launched it’s own “disco phone booths” similar to the ANZ's gayTMs.

Telstra has, in previous years, launched Disco Phone Booths to coincide with Sydney’s Mardi Gras – similar to the ANZ’s gayTMs

Making a stand for, on balance, the greater good, feels great. It should feel great.

It’s nice to be nice. But when it gets too complicated to be nice, corporations can’t afford to have a point of view, because being courageous in the face of adversity isn’t how corporations make money.

Dropping a position that’s gone from a cultural love-in to a cultural battle-ground in order renew a handful of mobile phone contracts proves this.

Changing your stance when the wind is right is smart business. Donald Trump knows this.

Telstra is the only major mobile provider that has jumped off the marriage equality bandwagon. It’s taking a stand against taking a stand, aside from unreliable data coverage and sky-high prices, it’s now the only major thing that sets Telstra apart from Vodafone, Optus or Virgin.

Companies change vendors every day but it’s not every day that they bully a vendor into dropping a public stance on equal rights.

Telstra could have said goodbye to the Catholic Church as a client and let it take its tax-free dollars to another mobile phone provider like Dodo, Aldi, Amaysim or Kogan – none of which hold a position on marriage equality, but have great deals.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 1.34.33 pmAs of today I have jumped off the Telstra bandwagon to save my conscience, and it turns out, heaps of money at the same time. Double win for me.

Dan Illic is head of content at Downwind Media and also the host of the A Rational Fear podcast

Update April 14: Telstra has today issued the following statement from Andy Penn, CEO Telstra:

Following yesterday’s marriage equality debate around Telstra, I want to be clear about Telstra’s perspective as our long track record in diversity and inclusion was generally overlooked.

We clearly need to make this simple statement: Telstra supports marriage equality as part of the great importance we place on diversity and standing against all forms of discrimination.

Equally we recognise there are many and varied views and if we are all truly accepting of diversity, there should be room made for all of them.

While Telstra continues to support Australian Marriage Equality and has not changed that position, we have made a decision not to publicly participate in the debate further.  This is because the proposed plebiscite process gives everyone an opportunity to contribute and out of respect, it is important we allow them to voice their own views.

However, this position was interpreted by some as us abandoning our tradition of supporting diversity and inclusion, be it in the community or in our workplace.  This could not be further from the truth.


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