Archive for December, 2009

AT&T and the Curse of the iPhone

The iPhone: AT&T's treasure or curse?

If the title of this post sounds like an Indiana Jones sequel, there’s a reason. As everybody learned at the climax of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” treasures come with a catch. Such is the case with AT&T and its exclusive offering, the iPhone. Landing the king of the smart phones and co-opting the luster of Apple is creating a mounting PR headache for the brand that used to be the largest company in the world and America’s unchallenged provider of telephone service. 

The media are rife with reports that AT&T’s network is groaning under the intense demands of iPhone usage. Dropped calls and sluggish data speeds are all-too-frequent complaints, especially in dense, urban locations such as San Francisco and New York City. AT&T’s abrupt cancellation of online sales of iPhones in NYC sparked a new round of bad press and conspiracy theories that the company was modulating demand on its infrastructure by limiting iPhone availability just in time for Christmas. 

Other hamfisted actions have battered AT&Ts public image, including: 

  • A vague comment by company president Ralph De la Vega turning into rumors of a tiered pricing program to make iPhone power users pay extra for their bandwidth consumption.
  • A lawsuit against Verizon for its commercials playing up AT&Ts patchy 3G coverage with a colored American map that invokes Bush v. Gore 2000.

AT&T is now officially denying the launch of a tiered pricing plan but is planning “incentives” for lighter iPhone use (reminiscent of incentives to pay farmers for not growing crops). As for other denials, a judge denied AT&Ts attempts to stop Verizon’s “map” ads, precipitating AT&T’s abandonment of its suit. Verizon may be upset; the suit amplified their ads and cast AT&T as litigious crybabies…with crummy coverage. (see my previous post about the attack ad/lawsuit cycle, “More Lawsuits than Brand X!”) 

AT&T can’t even catch a break as they ask customers to pinpoint dead zones with their “Mark the Spot” app. Some critics have called the program a “public relations gimmick” despite its interactivity and tacit admission that service could be better. 

Don’t take it from me or anyone else in the blogosphere that AT&T has a problem. According to Consumer Reports, AT&T ranks last in mobile phone customer satisfaction. Customers are mad enough to have mounted “Operation Chokehold,” a deliberate attempt to overload the AT&T network in protest. 

AT&T is in the midst of a PR debacle similar to the Jet Blue collapse that left travellers trapped inside terminals and grounded planes during winter storms. Perhaps AT&T doesn’t need the self-flagellation of Domino’s “Pizza Turnaround” campaign, but they do need a new level of clarity and candor. And they need to hurry. In the most dangerous and persistent rumor of all, Apple will share the iPhone with Verizon in 2010.

December 30, 2009 at 5:17 pm 2 comments

Tiger Woods Lawyers Up

Tiger Woods. Golf pro. PR duffer.

It’s been a boom market for PR pros during the Tiger Woods debacle. If only we could get as much ink (pixels, tweets) for our clients as we have for ourselves as we conduct the endless autopsy of the endless scandal. My noble disclaimer aside, time to jump in.

The Wall Street Journal has “broken” the case on Tiger’s PR ineptitude: his sports agent Mark Steinberg is handling matters. And yes, Mr. Steinberg is a lawyer by training.

The battle between lawyers and public relations practitioners is epic (at least in the annals of PR). One group says “shut up;” the other urges clients to do the opposite. According to WSJ, Team Tiger has maintained the code of silence since Mr. Steinberg told the Florida Highway Patrol that his client would answer no questions about his car accident. Silence is truly golden as reports continue that Tiger’s organization is negotiating with alleged mistress Rachel Uchitel to buy her permanent distance from the media.

This very silence has created the only Tiger boom market bigger than PR talking heads: the parade of “other women” with their digital versions of Monica’s blue dress–texts, voicemails, and possibly nude photos of the golfing great. Mark Steinberg has made Tiger Woods a billionaire. He’s now extending his Midas touch to nightclub hostesses and waffle house waitresses around the world. With the reported payoff of Girlfriend Zero, Ms. Uchitel, the media know they have to spend liberally and move quickly to keep the story going.

Silence is deadly. Arrogance is nearly as bad. Team Tiger is loaded with both. Granted the arrogance is not the wear-on-your-sleeve variety that propelled Barry Bonds to a federal indictment, but it is real and ready to eclipse Tiger’s achievements, philanthropy, and appeal.

The WSJ story includes a telling anecdote on Mr. Steinberg’s attitude toward the media as he orders journalists waiting for Tiger: “You have two questions each. Nobody asks a third question or he walks.” At least that’s two more questions than the Florida Highway Patrol got.

Tiger’s terse and cryptic online confession, now buried chronologically in the news section of his Web site, continues the disdain with the line: “Personal sins should not require press releases.” They don’t when you’re famous. They get plenty of coverage without any special announcements.

Woods’ world has been breached and Mark Steinberg, the law school grad/mega agent/best friend cannot defend it. Mr. Steinberg may have had his way when negotiating endorsement deals with huge companies. He may have successfully sued or punished marketers and media that violated his protocol. He may be able to slip seven-figure checks to a couple of party girls before the National Enquirer does. He’s not qualified to fight this war. But he’s doing wonders for the lawyers vs. PR debate…as far as PR pros are concerned.

December 9, 2009 at 8:44 am 4 comments


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