There’s been a lot to write about Telstra in the last couple of weeks. Strategic backflips, sliding earnings, falling share price and the apparent lack of panic at the top have generated lots of copy. And, amidst it all, it’s been astonishing to see how many editors, sub-editors and journalists still pull out the “Mexican” references whenever they discuss Sol Trujillo and Telstra, more than a year after his appointment. A quick (non-systematic) scan of papers from the last couple of weeks reveals the following:

…sends profits south of the border

…Sol Trujillo and his “Three Amigo” executive compadres are in the gun sights of furious Coalition MPs

…you’ve got to have faith, amigos

…as you might expect from a true Mexican raised on chilli peppers, a bit of heat doesn’t seem to fluster him

…Telstra opts for Mexican stand-off

By contrast, international reporting on Telstra in the same period has typically described Mr Trujillo as “an American”, referring to his background and experience managing other telcos like Orange in France as well as US West.

The facts: Mr Trujillo has never been a Mexican citizen. He was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Mexican-American parents, educated in the US, gained an MBA from the University of Wyoming in 1974, and worked in the United States for the next 25 years. Yes, he is Hispanic, but his heritage is celebrated, not lampooned, in the US, where he was the first native-born Hispanic to become CEO of a Fortune 200 company.

But, hey, he has a “funny” name with a “J” that sounds like an “H” and a “LL” that you pronounce like a “Y”. And a moustache…

In my Brand Management class, I’d call this an obvious example of the use of a “country-of-origin brand association”. While we may try to assess Sol Trujillo’s performance on purely rational grounds, by using “Mexican” clichés — not 21st Century Mexico, mind you, but those associated with the Mexicans of Hollywood Westerns and cartoons — journalists tap into associations in our minds that have been reinforced over decades. First come the images — like sombreros, ponchos, siestas under a cactus, and “Hey Cisco”. And hard on the heels of those images, come the more judgmental associations: sleepy or lazy, thieving bandidos, or just plum loco.

Outside my brand management class, and applied to an individual, I’d call it “racial stereotyping”. Imagine the outrage if (for example) Jac Nasser, as a Lebanese-born Australian, had been subjected to the same sort of country-of-origin clichés when running Ford here or in the US.

If they can’t show restraint, then perhaps it’s time some sections of the media laid off the tequila.

Dr Stephen Downes lectures on Brand Management and Services Marketing in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University in Melbourne.

Peter Fray

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