corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

26 Sep '05

The Clout of an Advertiser

Canwest publisher wrings hands over loss of Telus ads

Ask a Vancouver Sun manager what business her paper is in and she’ll likely tell you it’s delivering news and information to readers. The product the newspaper has for sale to its readers is the news.

This might be true if readers actually paid for the news and information, but they don’t. At most, they pay about 20 percent of the cost of the paper. The rest is paid by advertisers. In the case of radio, television and the new free dailies, audiences pay nothing.

So the business newspapers are in is delivering readers to advertisers such as Telus. Readers’ attention, and not news, is the commodity produced by newspapers, and advertisers are the consumers of that product.

The newspaper’s task is to assemble an audience of readers that advertisers will pay to reach.

Political economist Dallas Smythe once called news the “free lunch,” whose purpose was to attract the “audience commodity.”

But daily newspapers no longer have the advertising monopoly they held during the 1950s and ’60s. Newspapers today need to go to great lengths to keep their advertisers, and keep them happy. Perhaps that explains the Sun’s distorted coverage of the Telus-Telecommunications Workers Union dispute.

Skulsky’s finger wagging memo

We don’t know how much Telus spends to reach Sun and Province readers each year. That seems to be a closely guarded secret. But it must be in the millions of dollars.

That’s why a sequence of events that occurred recently is not surprising.

On September 5, the B.C. Federation of Labour issued a hot declaration on Telus print ads, as one step to pressure the company to bargain a fair collective agreement with the TWU.

You wouldn’t know this if you read the Sun. The only mention of the hot edict was one sentence in the fourth-from-last paragraph in a 27-paragraph story buried inside the business section.

The next day, the Media Union of BC (CEP Local 2000), which represents Sun and Province news workers, sent a letter to the Pacific Newspaper Group saying the union was declaring Telus to be an “unfair employer.”

Under their collective agreement, the union and its members have the right to refuse to execute any work coming from Telus.

Pacific Newspaper Group went to the B.C. Labour Relations Board for a declaration that the union’s unfair employee edict was “void and unenforceable.”

The same day, Pacific Newspaper Group president Dennis Skulsky issued a memo to all employees. He pointed out how important Telus was to the newspaper: “a major advertiser…” The loss of Telus’s advertising “would have a considerable financial impact on our newspapers,” he wrote.

Then he complained that “we don’t understand why we should suffer financially when thousands of Telus bargaining unit employees in BC and Alberta are crossing their own picket line to safeguard their financial well-being.”

He also issued a threat: “… if we are not successful in the grievance process we will have to make immediate changes to reduce our costs. CEP Local 2000 made a decision to invoke the unfair employer declaration. That was their choice. Now, we must react to ensure that our expenses remain in line to protect our business.”

In other words, you union members will suffer because of what your union is doing to us.

A week later, the Labour Relations Board, a provincial body, threw out the newspapers’ grievance, ruling it did not have jurisdiction because the Telus-TWU dispute falls under federal legislation.

The ball was back in Mr. Skulsky’s court. In his memo, he worried about competition for Telus advertising dollars from The Globe and Mail and “a host of new radio and television alternatives.”

But he did find one way around the hot edict: Telus glossy single-page inserts went out in the Sun and Province on September 21.

Diva? Who says?

Mr. Skulsky has another worry – maintaining good corporate relations with the telecommunications giant. CanWest and Telus are partners in the Board of Trade’s Vancouver Fireworks Festival Society’ summer fireworks displays. Mr. Skulsky is president of the society and Telus a major sponsor. Mr. Skulsky and Telus Vice-President of Corporate Communications Shawn Thomas were side-by-side at the announcement that Telus was joining the effort.

Good PR all around.

Shawn Thomas reads The Tyee. He didn’t post a comment on the web site but he wrote a letter to this columnist in response to my article on the Sun’s unfair and distorted coverage of Telus and the TWU. He writes: “I have never seen or read such wonderfully written fiction in the guise of half truths and misinformation.”

How so? Mr. Thomas gives only one example of the supposed fiction in the piece. He zeroes in on a passage in which I discuss Mat Wilcox and her firm, The Wilcox Group, and the high priced public relations consulting they provide Telus. In my article you will find Mat Wilcox described as “Vancouver’s reigning PR diva.” Thomas pounces on that. He writes: “From your references to Diva — Bruce Bell’s [TWU president] favourite word for a person he wrongfully believes is responsible for Telus communications….”

I have never spoken or communicated with Bruce Bell. My use of the word ‘diva’ comes from a source even Mr. Thomas should credit: BC Business Magazine. And that source was clearly noted by me in the article Mr. Thomas read.

‘Conspiracy theories’

Is Mr. Thomas saying the diva – Mat Wilcox – is not responsible for Telus communication?

Here’s a Telus news release dated August 4, 2003 about the Fire Aid organization which was providing emergency relief and support to people affected by the Kamloops fires.

Interestingly, Telus and CanWest were partners there too. More good PR for the dynamic duo.

The person responsible for the Telus communication was the diva, Mat Wilcox.

I also stand accused by Mr. Thomas of creating “conspiracy theories around media coverage.” I didn’t know that counting paragraphs and analyzing framing constitutes a conspiracy theory. It’s been standard practice in media analysis studies for many decades.

As to his evidence of the half-truths and misinformation in my article, he has provided none.

Mr. Thomas ends his letter as follows:

“I can only hope that someday I too will be in a position to write so much that is so wrong. However, unlike you, the world that Telus operates in requires, by law, fact based [sic] disclosure and transparency.”


Fact-based disclosure is indeed now required in the area of investor communications, thanks to Enron. We must give Mr. Thomas credit for the high quality of the company’s annual report, which has won lots of awards. But more important is the company’s communication with the public and here, it seems, spin is the order of the day.

First published in The Tyee.

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