We received a torrent of angry emails from one of Telstra's PR minders after we published a story yesterday about a poll result on the Telstra website that was unfavourable to the company.
Yesterday, APC reported that nearly 100% of people responding to an online poll on Telstra's corporate blog website voted to say Telstra was responsible for Australians not getting a fibre optic network. That story brought on a torrent of emails from one of Telstra's PR minders.
|Feeling Telstra's rage: APC's Dan Warne
I'll start at the ending and work back.
One of the last emails from Telstra PR spinblogger Rod Bruem said "the poll issue has been more great publicity for the site, not at all bothered by it."
Bruem was so unbothered by it that he'd spent his day writing me numerous emails, accusing me of being involved or knowing who supposedly manipulated the poll results, being a liar because I didn't warn him I was publishing the story in advance, and not being a journalist (full stop).
Naturally, it was that last barb that really hurt, because the measure of my success as a journalist is a Telstra PR's opinion. Crushing.
The background to this unprecedented stream of emails was that I contacted Bruem the night before I wrote the story, asking for some basic stats about Telstra's corporate blog, Now We Are Talking. I asked about visitor numbers, composition of the audience, and whether Telstra uses the feedback gathered at NWAT to inform its decision making.
I didn't tell Bruem I was writing a story that summarised the more amusing results of Telstra's research because I didn't actually need any further information from him about it - the results were there in black and white. Nor did I need Telstra's spin on why the research data may or may not have been valid - it was Telstra's data after all. I (wrongly, it seems) assumed they'd stand behind it.
According to Bruem, this was strike number one for me. "Why weren't you upfront about why you were seeking my comments and why didn't you actually ask for a comment on the issue were actually going to write about. Why are you so dishonest?" wrote Bruem in his first email to me.
I responded that I asked direct questions, and that there was no deception in my questions. Quite simply, a journalist doesn't need to ask a company's permission to write a story about them, and since I was simply summarising Telstra's own research data, I wasn't seeking further comment on it from them.
(For the record, Bruem knows I am a journalist, has dealt with me for years, and knows that I frequently ask Telstra for comment, especially if someone's lobbed an accusation against them.)
"You should acquaint yourself with the journalist code of ethics... But then of course you're not a real journalist are you?" Bruem replied back in a one-line email.
As graduate of RMIT's B.A. Journalism, a graded member of the journalism professional body Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance and an online editor at ACP Magazines, I queried what Bruem's definition of 'journalist' was.
Bruem's response? "You could apologise and I will apologise for attacking your credentials."
"I've never been lied to before by anyone in the media about a story as trivial as this," he snapped.
For a "trivial" story, Bruem sure was taking it to heart and spending a good part of his day sending me emails.
At about the same time, Telstra pulled the poll from its own site. Bruem told me it had been "rigged" and that he knew "because when [sic] can track it when someone votes more than once."
I asked why on earth Telstra's voting system allows people to vote more than once. "Isn't that a basic design no-no in any kind of polling system?"
Bruem also took the opportunity to put a conspiracy theory to me: "your ready-to-go-blog on the subject makes me suspect you perhaps know something about who was behind the rigging."
Actually, the first I'd heard of this poll was when a friend of mine IMed me and pointed out the result. I jumped on the story because I figured readers would be pretty interested to see Telstra's own research data revealing some inconvenient truths.
To my query about the robustness of Telstra's polling system, Bruem responded: "The poll voting system requires some engineering to vote more than once, as you probably know, ore [sic] perhaps your 'friend' does."
I hadn't even seen the poll until the result was pointed out to me, but in response to Bruem's theory, I suspect it's likely that Whirlpool.net.au members who saw mention of the poll in their online forums flooded it with their votes. If that's indeed the case [and I actually have no idea if it is since Telstra hasn't released the referrer stats for the votes], it's not ‘rigging', but simply a group of respondents that Telstra doesn't agree with.
Rod Bruem's comments seem to corroborate this theory: he told News Limited today that "Telstra-haters were directed to vote in the poll via popular blog http://www.whirlpool.net.au/"
"I guess Bruem had been hoping that only the Telstra-lovers they had been sending mailouts to would participate," said Whirlpool news editor Phil Sweeney.
The emails from Bruem ceased as quickly as they started and now the company has removed polls from the homepage of its site altogether.
The twist in this odd tale is that Telstra itself has been implicated in poll rigging. Some years ago, a Telstra staffer discovered that a ZDNet Australia poll about people's opinion on Telstra BigPond had a loophole allowing individuals to vote more than once.
ZDNet reported that he arranged for the results to be hugely inflated in Telstra's favour, prompting ZDNet Australia to do some digging about the source of the votes. It soon discovered a single IP address on Telstra's corporate network was the source of the votes.
It was investigated in a Senate Estimates hearing at the time, and Telstra's response was to blame ZDNet for making it possible to vote more than once.
"...it might seem unreasonable not to apologise but there could be quite reasonable reasons why, if we felt that a survey was not appropriately conducted, we would not see it as appropriate to apologise," said Telstra's Managing Director of Human Resources, Bill Scales.
The contractor involved then told Whirlpool that Telstra PR staff had found it "incredibly funny", but despite that, had told him he was no longer required at the company.