Randall Stephenson, welcome to The Watchdog’s office. Have a seat. Can I get you a chicken salad sandwich?
OK, that’s fine. You’re not here to eat. You’re here so I can share your latest job evaluation.
As AT&T’s CEO/chairman/president/Big Kahuna, you’ve had an extraordinary year. Pushing through your purchase of Time Warner is a monumental achievement in the annals of American business.
Your company’s news release announcing the acquisition carried this headline: “Positioned to be a Global Leader as a Modern Media Company.”
So, Randall, let’s focus on how you can keep that promise. In particular, let’s focus on what happened with that Oct. 15 Richardson fire that caused the massive outage for thousands of U-verse customers (Internet, phone and TV) in Dallas-Fort Worth for half a day or, in some cases, longer.
Sir, I’ve studied AT&T’s messaging during that event, especially the excellent real-time reporting by The Dallas Morning News’ ace business reporter Jeff Mosier. And I have to say your people, although well-intentioned, botched it. A communications company cannot afford to miscommunicate.
And now that AT&T owns half the world (I’m being facetious), you must be even more forthcoming in proportion to your greater power as a “modern media company.”
Last week, your spokesman Joe Chandler informed me that the fire might have been caused by a “fault in our cable from the commercial power feed into our building caused by a water leak from recent storms.”
Richardson Fire Chief Curtis Poovey told me the fire was small, easily put out within minutes with only two fire extinguishers.
Let’s talk about the imaginary lightning strike. First, your people announced on your @ATTCares customer service Twitter account that the cause appeared to be lightning. Your people corrected that shortly after in another social media post, saying it was an inside fire.
Yet the fictitious lightning story lingered — for two more days. Your folks should have more forcefully corrected it. A communications powerhouse cannot flub details like that. You need to over-communicate.
Customers felt abandoned
As usual, I heard from many of your customers, decrying a lack of information, and saw many comments on social media.
Susan Sanders Wansbrough wrote me on Facebook: “AT&T’s failure to update customers on progress being made to restore service is infuriating. I could understand if they said they just don’t know, but they are saying nothing. If they don’t give us an update soon, we’ll switch providers.”
@BrooksDallas tweeted: “About 12 hours and counting, and not a single update from them.”
Gail Cooksey, who owns one of the top public-relations firms in the region, told me: “My service was out for 12 hours, and the only source of information about what happened was Twitter posts from other frustrated customers.”
She added, “The outage wouldn’t have been a big issue for AT&T if they had just been more forthcoming with the truth and apologized. That’s a basic rule of crisis PR. It makes me wonder how they would handle something truly catastrophic.”
Your spokesman told me, “We responded to every customer on social media and those that contacted our customer-care teams.”
Obviously, not enough.
Crisis communications expert weighs in
Randall, let me introduce you to a guy I know — Gerard Braud, a New Orleans-based crisis communications expert. At my request, he studied AT&T’s response.
He says, “Somebody is telling the story on social media the minute it happens. If you’re not communicating at the speed of Twitter, then you’re not communicating at the speed the world wants to know its information.
“As a company as large as they are, they should be the gold standard of communications, rather than acting like the dinosaur that they are.
“They seem to be oblivious to the speed of social media with a great irony that all that social media communications is frequently happening on the very cellphones they provide to their customers.
“They are the conduit of their own bad news. They put the power to communicate in everyone’s hand, yet they don’t seem to get that they should be setting a high bar for quality crisis communications.”
I heartily agree.
Follow Oncor’s lead
Randall, as I’ve tried to show, there’s room for improvement. Fortunately, I have a constructive suggestion for you to follow before we do this again.
Please study what Oncor Electric Delivery has done in the field of reporting power outages. Oncor created a real-time outage map at stormcenter.oncor.com, which is updated every 10 minutes with outage information and estimates when power will be restored.
Oncor also knows when customers lose power and can send customers immediate alerts by phone, text or email. Customers can sign up for “My Oncor Alerts” at oncor.com or call (1-888-313-4747).
Without your own AT&T outage map and alert system, your customers go to websites like Downdetector.com, a privately owned site that relies on tweets and other sources to show outages.
Don’t you want to control your information? Don’t you want to please your customers? Don’t you want to be that exemplary global leader?
That’s all I have for now, Randall. Next time we talk, I’ll look to see improvements. Thanks for stopping by.
Note: If you’re an AT&T customer affected by the outage, AT&T says you can ask for a refund either online or by calling 1-800-288-2020.