Calls and PR Messages Don't Get Through During AT&T Outage

You don’t need a textbook to learn how a “textbook case” of adversity communications was filled with frustration and missed opportunities rather than sound execution of a “crisis” strategy.

If your business is wireless communications than what could be worse than an outage of several in multiple major markets?  I can’t think of one.  Then what’s a good reason for customers to be kept in the dark about what was happening?  I can’t think of one of those either.

Today, AT&T wireless’ service was knocked out, presumably by bad weather, in multiple Great Lakes area states.  As I write this, some 10 hours after the outage began, I don’t have many facts other than my Blackberry didn’t work for about 9 hours today and I searched the Internet, including traditional media, in vain all day looking for solid information.  What I found instead was a lot of emotion on the part of frustrated customers.

The outage began about 10:30 a.m. and by early afternoon, Twitter and wireless forums had a lot of reports and guesses about what happened.  By late afternoon, bloggers began to post. One, from Chicago, even had a quote from an AT&T spokesperson.  By early evening, a Chicago newspaper had posted a story online.  A Michigan Associated Press story, filed at about 6:45 p.m. included one line about an outage for AT&T customers.   A cell phone outage pales in comparison to hundreds of thousands of residents without electricity.  But couldn’t one Michigan news outlet have reported some facts?

That could have happened, it seems, if AT&T had pursued an aggressive communications strategy.  Without question, their communications staff must have been hampered by a cell phone outage on a holiday weekend.  But, somehow, couldn’t a spokesperson reached out to key outlets that can reach customers immediately – like the all-news radio station and daily newspapers’ Web sites and asked for the media outlet to communicate directly with customers?  That would have saved thousands of calls to their call centers, visits to their stores (this happened all day, I read) and hits on their help Web site from customers who were unaware of a mass outage. It would have set expectations and reassured frantic customers looking for information.

The same approach works for social media too.  If AT&T people starting posting on Twitter and in forums, they could have laid out facts that could have quelled frustrating and speculative chatter.  I would normally suggest a message to customers on the AT&T Web site.  But, realistically, I can imagine the time, politics and other complicating factors that would have to go into such a thing at a gigantic corporation.

Years ago, when Don and I represented an airline, some in that company scoffed at our efforts to “go proactive” in times of adversity, like a snowstorm that resulted in cancelled flights.  But, after a while of doing it “our way,” the insiders learned that a tiny dose of self-initiated “bad press” goes a long way toward customer communication when you can work with the media to tell your story and deliver your messages.  It also reduces the drain on call centers and other resources.

So what about my day without a cell phone?  Let’s just say it’s a good thing it’s a quiet holiday weekend.