Bell talks the talk, but do the walk the walk?
Freya Wasteneys, Features Editor
A young businesswoman stands alone in her kitchen. “Hi, you’ve reached the voicemail of Lori Freeman. I will be out of the office all day,” she says as the camera pans to sad eyes and a drawn face. “For emergencies, please contact Diana at extension 342.” After a pause, her voice gets quieter, “thank you… and have nice day.”
We are left with a voiceover about how mental health affects us all.
As one of the many ads in Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign, the simple poignancy of “Lori Freeman’s” voicemail resonates personally with some, and hits an emotional chord with others. More still are drawn by the celebrity testimonials. Many of us add the “Bell blue” to our Facebook profile pictures, and on Jan. 31, we shoot a few texts to our friends. We feel good about helping a cause and move on with our lives.
In today’s get woke or go broke culture, Bell is one of many businesses responding to topical issues and tapping into the zeitgeist of our time. From a marketing perspective, it’s brilliant – as a telecommunications company, Bell leverages the niche it holds sway over and facilitates meaningful conversations, all while benefiting from viral shares and increased data usage. It’s a conversation that needs to be had, and there is no denying that good dialogues have been sparked by the campaign, but for some, the message feels inconsistent with Bell’s practices as a company.
One of many speaking out against Bell’s campaign is Nic Durish, a MSc Computer Science student at the University of Guelph who is currently studying the Digital Divide. In a post on Facebook on Jan. 30, Durish wrote a long and heated criticism of the campaign. The original post received 152 reactions, 34 shares, 25 comments and managed to reach well beyond his circle of friends.
“Since the advent of the campaign in 2010, I shared their hashtag every year, and even felt ‘proud’ of my contribution to a cause that I stand behind 100 per cent. Because let’s face it, stigma around mental health is inarguably damaging to our society,” said Durish. “All this being said – the campaign is starting to leave a bad taste in my mouth.”
Durish, whose research has taken him to many remote communities across Canada, has directly seen the effects of Bell’s practices. “The internet they provide to communities in remote regions like Labrador is almost 200 times more expensive and slower than that over most populated regions in Ontario,” he said.
The extent to which Canadians are financially gouged for their phone plans is no secret. Bell is one of the Big Three telecommunication companies, making the company a key player in Canada’s oligopoly. In a report commissioned by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commision (CRTC) in 2016, Nordicity used data to rank the eight wealthiest countries in terms of wireless pricing, and Canada was consistently one of the most expensive. It’s no wonder Bell wants us to talk, when we’re paying out of our ears for data.
While telecommunications companies blame Canada’s complex geography and far spread population, the impact on these communities has solidified Durish’s dislike of Bell. He noted that even their internal practices have fallen short of their message. In his post, he went on to cite a 2017 investigation by the CBC, in which 600 individuals criticized the lack of consistent messaging on the part of the company. “As it turns out, crying before your shift, taking stress leave, and being consistently pressured by sales management seems to be a common occurrence at Bell,” wrote Durish. “Maria McLean, the Grand River radio host claims that she was even fired within an hour of bringing her boss a doctor’s note stating she needed two weeks off work for mental health reasons.”
Bell seems to have taken note of these accusations to some extent. On Jan. 29, 2018, just two days before the annual Bell-iday, Bell’s CEO George Cope spoke to a room of corporate leaders to urge them to implement their own policies for employees. As quoted in the Globe and Mail (which, it turns out, is partially owned by Bell), he said “We’re not perfect, but we’ve made significant strides […] For business leaders in the room, here’s the call-out: The numbers are self-funding. There’s no reason not to adopt a program in your company.” He went on to discuss the cost of mental health on corporations, and the donations Bell has given, which he estimates will equal $100 million by 2020.
The argument has been made that it is detrimental to criticise companies for being socially responsible. For Durish, some of the comments he received pointed out that ‘at least they were having a conversation’ – as Bell’s CEO said, nobody’s perfect. But what Durish is against is the idea of large corporations playing off social insecurities for personal gain. “There is undoubtedly benefits from the campaign, particularly in its advent, and to many people that seems to be enough,” he said. “But I don’t know whether we have enough info publicly to know whether the positives outweigh the negatives, particularly if by contributing to the campaign we are giving more money to an extractive and unnecessarily large corporation than the actual cause itself.”
Emma Schram, a graduate from BCIT’s Business Administration program, has been working in marketing and campaigns for the past few years, and weighed in on the topic. “A huge problem right now is companies asking advertising agencies to come up with topical ideas and conversations for their campaigns,” said Schram. “But these campaigns reflect what the public wants to see but not the core values of the company.” While she noted that it was good to have big companies starting these conversations, she believes that without a plan to follow through with these messages, such campaigns can be damaging to the company.
However, Bell is seemingly following through with what they’ve promised. While it’s always lots of fun to demonize large corporations, it’s also not entirely surprising that Bell would want to capitalize off of a well-conceived PR campaign. Is Bell getting more than they are giving? Probably. But does it matter? The truth is, it might not. Could they give more? Again, probably, and yet at least they appear to have responded to criticism from previous years, and (according to the CEO) are striving for better mental health policies and company culture. Additionally, they have facilitated over one billion interactions in the past nine years and given $100 million to youth, military families, indigenous and non-indigenous communities. While they may not be particularly transparent about what they make, at least they are transparent about where they send funds, and who has been supported through their campaign. The numbers are not insignificant, especially for the people, communities and charities benefiting from Bell’s campaign.
The key distinction that needs to be made is that Bell is not, in fact, a charity. Rather, it is acting as a donor to charities. We don’t have to like Bell or all their practices, but there is no denying that the conversation they’ve started has been impactful.
In the best of all worlds, Bell would be less extractive, more generous, more understanding, and walk the walk as it talks the talk. Unfortunately, there are few companies who play by such standards. It’s not unheard of, with brands like Lush and Patagonia leading the way in corporate social responsibility, but it is rare. Being charitable does not exempt a company from critique — it is still crucial to hold large corporations accountable. But, as we push for accountability, perhaps the best way to do that is to critique companies for what they are doing wrong, not what they are doing right.