AT&T's Lee: Real-Time Rosy, But Watch For Thorns

AT&T had a problem with its reputation as a service provider as far back as 2007, despite the fact that it had tied up an exclusive, multi-year deal with Apple for iPhone. The wireless provider might have had the phone, but it also had serious service and image issues. The latter was not so good because the former was pretty bad. 

As Esther Lee, SVP brand marketing, advertising and sponsorships, said the first task in the company's uphill climb was getting service in order."We are, first, a mobile company. And a lot starts with the network. Since then, we have seen traffic increase 20,000%. We are an investment-class network now and have spent lots of time on the customer experience."

During a keynote Q&A at MediaPost's OMMA Global on Monday, she recalled the company's other, more recent,  problem -- one that demonstrated the challenges inherent in engaging consumers in real-time social media, whether around lifestyle, news, entertainment or whatever else is current. On 9/11, when the company tweeted a photo of a smartphone on whose screen was displayed a shot of the 9/11 twin lights, there was an uproar. Lee said it highlights key risks in the space, like inadvertently promulgating controversial and polarizing real-time content (which by definition is hard to vet), and trying to decide when and how to deal with really negative real-time reactions. 



Lee said the 9/11 snafu also demonstrates how a corporation can't just offer a corporate response to a mistake. AT&T's decision to use the device as a frame for the photo was not an effort to market a phone at the expense of a tragedy, but "people thought we were commercializing the tragedy," she said. 

After an hour, the company had 400 negative comments, although there were several thousand positive ones, per Lee. "So we took it down and posted an apology. As it went through senior management discussions, our chairman decided he wanted to go out and apologize himself." The next day he posted a letter to employees, customers and share owners essentially saying, "We let people down; we didn't live up to a standard we believe in." 

"Senior people have to always be available because of the Internet and social media; people are more empowered than ever before," said Lee. "And while consumers don't have to take responsibility for comments, we as marketers must know that we have to manage and know which public anger you have to address and what's smoke and doesn't have to be addressed." 

Lee noted that AT&T uses Twitter and Facebook without advertising on those platforms. The company is also a fan of Twitter's new Amplify platform, a video-embedding platform that offers branding opportunities. Last summer, for example,  AT&T used Amplify for “Summer Break,” a social-media reality show for younger consumers that let viewers tweet to the show's characters. "In that case, we are obviously not doing an ad for an AT&T device but integrating some of it into real-time content and consumer interaction; we are talking about the speed of the network, for example, but doing it by engaging youth and showing the importance of mobile devices."

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