A lesson in AT&T's Facebook approach

The Facebook logo is reflected in the eye of a girl.

TEXT OF STORY

BILL RADKE: Companies are catching on to social media as a way to market themselves. But ah, beware the web and its risk of PR disaster.

From WLRN in Miami, Kenny Malone tells us one approach companies can take should Facebook turn unfriendly.


KENNY MALONE: Two weeks ago, AT&T sent a "special message" to nearly 10 million of its customers -- "Thanks for choosing us. We already cover 97 percent of America."

And then the company went on to announce billions of dollars in network upgrades, without addressing some common complaints about dropped calls and coverage gaps. At the end, the e-mail invited customers to post comments on the company's Facebook wall. Thousands did. Mostly negative. And so we present: AT&T's Facebook wall -- a dramatic reading by Gablestage actors Gregg Weiner and Erin Joy Schmidt.

GREGG WEINER: Service in Alabama sucks!

ERIN JOY SCHMIDT: iPhone sucks!

WEINER: AT&T SUCKS!

SCHMIDT: OMG! I really hate dealing with AT&T!

WEINER: Seriously though, f### you!

CHRIS BACCUS: Um, you know, the f-word is what it is. It's basically an emphatic response.

Chris Baccus oversees AT&T's Facebook response team. They have more than two-dozen people dedicated to social media. But they don't take down angry posts, they respond to them! Rationally and kindly.

BACCUS: People don't really expect a response when they do leave some obscene kind of comment like that. But you want to see why that person really said what they said.

In the hours after AT&T sent their special message, Facebook posts jumped five-fold. You can look back and still see AT&T still responding as late 4:00 a.m. that night. And that's one approach.

Some companies, like BP, remove vulgarity. Others, like McDonald's and Disney, limit a user's privilege to post. But those consumers...

TURKEL: They're commenting anyways!

Says marketing consultant Bruce Turkel.

BRUCE TURKEL: If you don't provide them with the wall, in this case, or any other opportunity, do you think therefore they're going to be quiet?! People are going to get their message out whether they spray paint it on a wall -- a real wall -- or they type it onto a Facebook wall.

Turkel says AT&T is doing exactly what they should be -- intervening instead of trying to interrupt.

TURKEL: What are you going to do, sue somebody? Put out a cease and desist? By the time the message has been picked up in the viral space it's out of your hands, it's out of your control!

Turkel says social media marks the end of an era for companies. An era when controlling the message was even an option.

In Miami, I'm Kenny Malone for Marketplace.

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