AT&T Outage Shows How PR Culture Must Change

This morning, my 8am conference call, much to my on-time obsessed horror, started at 8:06am. That’s because I thought my cell phone was broken, as it wouldn’t dial calls. It took a few minutes to realize it was my phone then get to a landline.

After thoughts of spending the day in line at the AT&T Store stressed me out, I took to Twitter to see if I was alone with this electronic malady. Within seconds, I found out that I wasn’t. Within minutes, it became clear there was a market-wide voice service outage. Minutes later, traditional media had heard from enough customers that it reported this as news. Nearly two hours after my would-be 8am call, AT&T’s Twitter customer service staff tweeted me back to let me know they are “working on it now.” An hour later, I read on Twitter and confirmed myself that it was over.

AT&T could have been proactive about this, saving a drain on its call centers and retail stores for customers who thought it was “just them.” It’s a lot like what I wrote about in this piece from 2008. Much has changed in four years, but corporate PR culture, unfortunately, has not. Companies are still afraid to communicate any “bad news,” even when it’s in the best interest of their customers.

In the case of this morning, text messaging worked. Email service worked. AT&T can text and/or email all of its customers. They could have notified us right away that there’s an outage in our area – there’s no need to call them or visit a store – and they’ll keep us updated. Then, when it was fixed, a text message, email or automated call could have brought the news of the successful resolution. They are a technology company. They are a communications company. Unlike most companies, they have the contact information for every one of their customers. If nothing else, they could have communicated via traditional and social media to manage expectations and save unnecessary frustration for customers calling and visiting stores.

But, no. Corporate PR generally dictates “reactive only” procedures in these situations. As I wrote four years ago, when Don and I worked with an airline once upon a time, our client proactively notified customers and we notified media when the airline would cancel large amounts of flights during severe snowstorms. That was more than 12 years ago. We saved thousands of unnecessary trips to airports and customers actually thanked the airline for being proactive. The media showcased our efforts as an example of good customer relations. The technology and PR both worked then. They would work even better now. If only companies didn’t live in fear of (cue ominous music) “bad news.”