For several weeks now, the big three telecommunication firms — Bell, Rogers and Telus — have joined forces and waged a public relations blitz to win the hearts and minds of Canadians.
Their 'Fair for Canada' campaign seeks to rally the public to their side and "stand up for fair competition in Canada." And they warn of the consequences of the federal government giving U.S.-based companies like Verizon Communications an unfair advantage to bid on valuable wireless spectrum.
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But some telecom analysts question the effectiveness of the campaign, charging that their message is a tough sell to many wary consumers who have little love for their cellphone providers.
"[The telecom providers] haven't paid attention to the fact — whether it's reality or not — that the perception is they're taking advantage of Canadian customers in the pocketbook and taking liberties with customer service," said Mark Blevis, a digital public affairs analyst.
"So they haven't built a relationship with the Canadian public. They've now turned to the Canadian public to come to their aid."
The three companies have launched full-page newspaper ads, radio spots and a Fair for Canada website, that includes an array of facts, figures, editorials and columns along with an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed by the CEOs of the big three.
Their beef is that the government limits how much of the spectrum the three incumbent companies can buy up. And that changes to rules in foreign ownership mean a company like Verizon could snap up the spectrum that is off limits.
"The Government of Canada is risking the future of the Canadian wireless industry," the website states. "The policy loopholes, which give giant American corporations an advantage in the wireless spectrum bidding process, are unfair and will have massive consequences for Canadians. This policy could undermine Canadians’ ability to connect to one another, threaten Canadian jobs, and raise significant concerns regarding privacy and security."
But the incumbents' concerns about competition may instead be sparking a consumer backlash.
Blevis did some analysis on the online response to the campaign and found that an "overwhelming number of people" have been critical of the campaign. It has given an excuse for those to complain about their providers' service and many welcome Verizon, hoping a fourth carrier will provide lower prices.
The website and Fair for Canada slogan has been mocked. And a two-minute video showcasing the concerns of Bell, Telus and Rogers employees has been parodied and criticized.
Meanwhile, a poll by Forum Research found that 57 per cent of Canadians support Verizon entering the Canadian market, and a majority believe its presence will lead to lower rates and better service.
"Canadians have sniffed this one out. They can tell what the big three are trying to do and it's not going over well," Blevis said.
Blevis believes the timing of the campaign was bad, coming during summer vacation when people either aren't around or aren't interested in telecom issues. He said the campaign also erred by sending out a mixed message.
"If they had inspired Canadians to protect the Canadian marketplace, that may have worked. Instead what they tried to do is get Canadians to protect them. And by all accounts, Canadians are not prepared to do that for the big three."
'They haven't been convinced'
Iain Grant, an analyst with The Seaboard Group consulting firm, said that if effectiveness is measured by shifting public policy and by changing minds of the people who have the ability to change the policy, this campaign "has been one of the least effective lobbying/PR campaigns in history."
"Since the print campaign was launched, we've had the minister of industry say 'Ok, thank you, I've heard you — NO. And then a week later we heard the prime minister... say, 'You didn't understand the minister? The answer is NO.
"Now those are the two Canadians whose opinions count the most. And they haven't been convinced."
John-Kurt Pliniussen, an associate professor in innovation, sales management and e-marketing at Queen's University school of business, said instead of trying to appeal to a sense of patriotism, the incumbents should have been contrite, admitted that their service has been subpar in the past, and promise to improve over the next couple of years.
"They could have done something that makes the consumer, the user of their services more pleased," he said. "They say this might happen, or this might happen. They say nothing about our service, nothing about what our costs are."
Four or five years ago, the CRTC would receive about 900 complaints a year about telecom companies, Pliniussen said. Now it's over 7,000.
"I don't think the trigger is Canada. I think the trigger is service. Service and value. Because that's all we care about is great service," he said.