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Telstra goes quiet in marriage equality debate, despite a history of vocal support

The telco has been criticised for walking away from the marriage equality debate, despite its long history of LGBTI support. It says its position is unchanged, but one brand expert says support must go beyond words.

One of Telstra's "Disco Infono" phone booths, kitted out for the 2015 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.


Update, April 18 at 4.15 p.m. AEST: Telstra CEO Andy Penn has issued a third statement reconfirming Telstra's pro-marriage equality stance, saying the telco must "step forward" and be more public in its support.

Telstra has come under fire for flip-flopping on its position on marriage equality after saying it had "no further plans to be active in the [same-sex marriage] debate" in Australia. The move has been met with widespread criticism on social media and questions about Telstra's professed commitment to supporting LGBTI issues in Australia.

But while company CEO Andy Penn said the company's diversity record had been "overlooked" in the backlash, Telstra's decision to withdraw from public discourse on one of the biggest social issues in Australia is a marked departure from its public voice on LGBTI issues in the past.

It's also an about-face that risks alienating Telstra's very own customers, with one advertising executive saying brands that "duck in and out" of the conversation with the LGBTI community "are not taken very seriously."

Telstra's comments this week are seemingly at odds with its long history of outspoken support for LGBTI causes and events in Australia.

As part of its sponsorship of the 2015 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, Telstra kitted out a number of "Disco Infono" phone booths with disco balls and rainbow flags. It has sponsored Australia's second-largest LGBTI festival, Midsumma, since 2011, and is signed on as "Technology Partner" until 2017. The support has also gone beyond corporate sponsorship, too. The telco ranks in the Top 20 in the Australian Workplace Equality Index (a leading measure of LGBTI support and diversity in the workplace), and its internal network for LGBTI employees, known as Spectrum, has been running since 2008.

With this track record, the move by Australia's biggest telco to pull up stumps in the marriage equality debate was met with disappointment and derision.

Telstra's comments followed reports that the Catholic Church had lobbied company management to withdraw its support for marriage equality.

The telco was one of a number of major Australian brands whose logo appeared in a full-page ad in "support of marriage equality" in The Australian last May. But the ad drew firm opposition from Australia's largest church.

"Undoubtedly, many of the Catholic population of Sydney would be your employees, customers, partners and suppliers," the Business Manager of the Archdiocese of Sydney, Michael Digges, wrote in the letter to Telstra, published in The Australian this week. "It is therefore with grave concern that I write to you about the Marriage Equality for Australians campaign."

The Australian cited sources familiar with the situation who said the telco "did not want to risk its commercial relationship with the church."

The Archdiocese of Sydney provided a statement to CNET, saying that Digges wrote to a number of companies that it had "business partnerships" with after they publicly supported a "campaign on the redefinition of marriage." But the Church said, "It is misleading to say the Archdiocese threatened in any way a boycott of companies included in the campaign."

Telstra issued a statement after the publication of Digges' letter, saying its position on same-sex marriage had not changed, but that "ultimately, Parliament will decide the matter." As a result, the company had "no further plans to be active in the debate."

The words were met with swift censure.

Telstra CEO Andy Penn was quick to get on the front foot, issuing a follow-up statement today.

Telstra has been a vocal supporter of LGBTI causes in the past.


"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," Penn said. "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."

Penn said Telstra was not "abandoning our tradition of supporting diversity and inclusion."

As the director of Pink Media Group, Australia's only LGBTI-targeted advertising agency and the organisers of the 2015 marriage equality ad that appeared in The Australian, Ben Mulcahy says brands who advertise to the LGBTI community need to be about more than just words.

"To do it properly they need to have an ongoing annual conversation on a national scale, and there needs to be a level of commitment," he said.

"The LGBTI community has a very strong bullshit detector. So it's very obvious when a brand comes in and isn't genuine...It doesn't work."

And his advice to brands that worry about falling afoul of lobbyists if they take a stand on LGBTI issues? Stay "consistent," he says, and follow "along the lines of what they truly believe overall."

"It's an opportunity for them to be on the right side of history," he said. "It's more genuine if brands are supportive now, when the Government is not up to speed, than it is if they then jump on board once the Government is up to speed.

"The LGBTI community will have more respect for brands that help us now."