Telstra’s struggle between worshipping the almighty dollar and wanting to be seen to be a progressive, inclusive company came to a head yesterday. The company suffered a massive PR hit for bowing to Catholic Church threats over the company’s stance on same-sex marriage, and digging out of the mess is even more of a problem for Australia’s largest telecommunications company.

Whether it is because it is chasing the pink dollar or out of a genuine push for diversity inside one of Australia’s largest employers, Telstra has long been a supporter of LGBTI rights. It is a member of Pride in Diversity, regularly has staff march in Mardi Gras as part of the Pride in Diversity float, and attends and sponsors gay-related events. The company has recognised the overseas marriages of its staff in same-sex relationships for the last seven years. Last year, Telstra was one of dozens of Australian companies included in a full-page advertisement by Australians for Marriage Equality.

So the company’s sudden kowtowing to the Catholic Church came as a shock to many customers and staff. The Australian yesterday reported that Telstra had told the Archdiocese of Sydney that it would not be campaigning for marriage equality if Labor was elected and held a free vote in Parliament, or if the Coalition won and the government continued down the path of a $160 million plebiscite. The Archdiocese of Sydney wrote to the companies that were in the advertisement suggesting the Church would withdraw its business from those companies if they were seen to be publicly supporting marriage equality. The paper reported the company was backing away from publicly supporting marriage equality due to concerns it would risk the commercial contracts Telstra holds with the Church.

The Archdiocese’s contracts with Telstra are relatively small change for the telco, but not to be ignored. At last public reporting, Telstra had secured a $146 million contract with Catholic Network Australia to connect 1550 schools in 2009. By comparison, Telstra also has a $1 billion deal with the Defence Department and last week signed a $1.5 billion deal with NBN Co to upgrade its own cable network.

Perhaps with a view to placate both sides, the company’s initial statement on the matter was mild. It said the company’s position on the issue “has not changed” but it did not explicitly state what Telstra’s position was, outside of recognising diversity. Telstra said that “out of respect” for its staff and stakeholders it would not contribute to the debate while it was ongoing.

Since then the company has faced major backlash on its social media pages from customers threatening to leave the telco. One customer was told by a Telstra staffer over chat they were sorry the company didn’t support his “ideology”. It’s understood that internally many of Telstra’s own staff are furious at the weak response and let their views be known on the company’s internal chat service, Yammer.

Telstra CEO Andy Penn yesterday told staff on Yammer that Telstra’s decision to stay silent during the debate would be disappointing to some staff. This morning he released another statement, this time explicitly pointing out the company does support marriage equality:

“We clearly need to make this simple statement: Telstra supports marriage equality as part of the great importance we place on diversity and standing against all forms of discrimination.”

Penn said it couldn’t be further from the truth that Telstra was “abandoning” its support of diversity and inclusion. Telstra didn’t provide additional comment when it was sought by Crikey.

The Archdiocese of Sydney had not responded to a request for comment by deadline. In a statement yesterday, Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney business manager Michael Digges said his letter simply pointed out that support of same-sex marriage was “incompatible with the business practices” of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

According to its guide for business practice, the Church says partners and suppliers must not conduct business that “seeks to promote or benefits … practices which are harmful or destructive” or “unethical or socially irresponsible”. It does not ban these things, but says companies should disclose activities contrary to the “fundamental commitments shared by Catholics to strengthen and protect marriage”.

In his statement yesterday Digges denied he was threatening a boycott of companies in the campaign, just that he reminded them that “in agreeing to do business with the Archdiocese” suppliers had agreed to be “comfortable” with the association of their name and brand with the Archdiocese.

It’s unclear which company the Church would sign up its business with if Telstra decided to hold its ground and the Archdiocese had continued with its vague “not a boycott” campaign. At least in the mobile network market, both network rivals support marriage equality, and Optus has sponsored Mardi Gras. Telstra’s major fixed-line business rivals including iiNet and M2 are also signatories to the Australians for Marriage Equality open letter.