Parsing AT&T’s Outage Response

Thom Weidlich 02.29.24


On Thursday, Feb. 22, telegiant AT&T experienced a cell-network outage that prevented about 70,000 customers from using their phones for up to seven hours. It was a high-profile crisis to which the company responded in some interesting, not-always-great ways.

AT&T’s initial responses were posts to X, formerly Twitter. They’re nice examples of holding statements, which crisis communicators use to let stakeholders know they’re aware of a problem and are on it.

“Some of our customers are experiencing wireless service interruptions,” AT&T first wrote. “We are working urgently to restore service to all who are impacted.” Later that day it was able to post: “We apologize to our affected customers. All wireless service has been restored.” The company said the problem appeared to be “caused by the application & execution of an incorrect process used as we were expanding our network, not a cyber attack.” In other words, probably a coding issue.

‘Impacted Accounts’

On Saturday (too long a delay), it posted that it recognized “the frustration Thursday’s outage caused & know we let many of our customers down. To help make it right, we are applying a credit to potentially impacted accounts.”

A credit? That’s interesting. How much? The answer appeared on a “Making It Right” explanatory page the company added to its website on Saturday. But AT&T, in our view, revealed the amount in an unnecessarily sneaky way. On the page, the word credit is accompanied by an asterisk. The page bottom reveals, in very small type, the credit to be $5 per account.

Despite the company’s efforts, journalists didn’t bury the $5 in their news stories and in fact highlighted it in many headlines. “AT&T Will Give $5 to Customers Hit by Cellphone Network Outage,” NPR wrote. Customers have kvetched about the amount. “A whole $5??” one person tweeted. “Wow!!! Thank you so much for your generosity and understanding.”

You can’t make everyone happy.

CEO Letter

Strangely, AT&T appears not to have done a press release on the incident. Instead, it made available on its website CEO John Stankey’s Feb. 25 letter to employees, which reads in parts as if it’s also addressed to customers and other audiences.

“Thursday was a challenging day for our company,” Stankey began. “Our purpose is to connect people to greater possibility, and we fell short of what we typically do so well each and every day.”

Stankey made clear he thinks the $5 is exceedingly generous. He also, wisely, didn’t pretend he could promise no repeat performance. “This is not our first network outage, and it won’t be our last — unfortunately, it’s the reality of our business,” he wrote. “What matters most is how we react, adapt and improve to deliver the service our customers need and expect.”

That’s sound advice for crisis communicators in general.

Image Credit: AT&T

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