How Phil Burgess exploited his mother to spruik Telstra

Almost–departed Telstra head comms honcho Phil Burgess achieved national infamy after saying he wouldn’t recommend Telstra shares to his mother – but far from being an off-the-cuff remark that was a deliberately workshopped strategy designed to give the company’s anti-regulation stance more prominence in the broadband debate.

Burgess whose departure as the chief Telstra spin doctor was announced earlier this week was part of the team of former American colleagues dubbed “amigos” that Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo bought in when he took the reins at Telstra three years ago. He achieved prominence after telling a journalist who asked if he would purchase Telstra shares: “I’ll keep that to myself but I sure wouldn’t recommend it to my mother.”

It seems the spin cycle started early. Speaking at a public affairs conference in Canberra today Telstra director of media communications Andrew Maiden said that Burgess’ comment had been very carefully planned as a means of forcing the government into public discussion over Telstra’s plans to build its own fibre-based national broadband network.

“We tried to have these debates in private in the first weeks after Sol Trujillo came to Canberra” Maiden said. After two or three months of private government meetings failed to produce any results Telstra decided a more aggressive approach was needed. “That was the day that Phil Burgess decided to say he wouldn’t recommend Telstra shares to his mother.”

“The comment was deliberate” Maiden said. “It was workshopped in advance. It was designed to give Telstra some traction in the telecommunications debate. The remark did earn Phil some critics and did in some people’s minds brand him as a buffoon but ultimately the comment achieved its desired effect. He catapulted regulation from the business pages into the general news pages and attracted an audience that it wouldn’t have attracted otherwise.”

As several commentators have pointed out in analysing Burgess’ stint at Telstra the attacks didn’t make much regulatory difference with Telstra’s network plan never getting off the ground. However Maiden said there were still benefits in the approach: “We’ve broken the habit of governments that treated Telstra as community property.”

While acknowledging Burgess’ influence Maiden said his departure would not fundamentally change Telstra’s approach. “Telstra’s strategy is the same as it has been for the last three years. Phil Burgess changed Telstra forever and the company will now always be one that advocates the needs of its customers and stakeholders.” Presumably that means we can look forward to more expensive broadband bundles and slower speeds in non-competitive exchanges.

That approach will also include maintaining Telstra’s controversial Now We Are Talking blog. While Maiden talked up the value of the site as a communication tool for Telstra he admitted that it did not receive separate funding in Telstra’s main communications budgets.

“What we do is borrow resources from the existing corporate affairs team. Resources are allocated sometimes a little like the old days and we get by on a smell of an oily rag We’ve got some good contractors who do the work but not nearly as many as you would think it should have. We fund it to some extent but not nearly to the extent I think we should. That’ll happen in a few years time.”

Despite widespread cynicism about NWAT’s self-serving content which purports — in a manner worthy of being compared to Fox News — to be fair and unbiased but quite obviously presents Telstra’s company line Maiden said the site had met its goals. “We know that the company’s position has reasonably widespread support but we know most citizens are un-engaged in government. The site has engaged the general public for the first time in the debate over investment in telecommunications.” (As a side note Maiden obviously hasn’t been to Whirlpool any time in the last decade if he thinks Telstra’s position on anything has widespread community suppor)

Maiden said that communicating with shareholders was the main benefit of NWAT though he conceded that it offered the “incidental benefit of a place to express our opinion when we disagree with media coverage”. Time will tell if he decides this piece is worth a response.