Public relations is a potential minefield for any company, big or small and the problem is even worse in 2015 compared with forty years ago. These days, customers can call, write, email, or use any one of a large number of social networks to communicate with a given business, depending on where that business has exposure. Most larger companies have entire teams of people designed to talk to the press and individuals on behalf of a given business, whereas smaller companies might have one or two individuals. However, the one of the largest telecommunications in the United States of America, AT&T, it appears that their lawyers have first dibs at some forms of communication – specifically to emails straight to the Chief Executive Officer, Randall Stephenson.
Today’s story concerns a loyal AT&T customer, Alfred Valerie, who uses four of AT&T’s services. He found Randall’s personal email address at AT&T and dropped the Chief Executive an email with a couple of ideas of how AT&T might improve their offerings to customers – unlimited data for DSL customers, and 1,000 text messages for mobile customers for $10 a month. Unfortunately, it appears that Randall forwarded the email to AT&T’s legal department and Thomas A. Restaino, the chief intellectual property counsel, replied. After first thanking Alfred for being a lifelong customer the message went on to say, “AT&T has a policy of not entertaining unsolicited offers to adopt, analyze, develop, license or purchase third-party intellectual property … from members of the general public. Therefore, we respectfully decline to consider your suggestion.” In other words, we’re not going to listen to your idea. Thomas’ response could have been worded a lot nicer and certainly goes against the grain of AT&T’s stated code of business: “Our customers should always know we value them. We listen to our customers… We earn and preserve their trust by treating them with honesty and integrity and in a professional, courteous manner.”
Unfortunately for AT&T, things go deeper as the reporter for the LA Times brought the email to the attention of AT&T and was told by a company spokeswoman, Georgia Taylor, that the response was deliberate: “In the past, we’ve had customers send us unsolicited ideas and then later threaten to take legal action, claiming we stole their ideas. That’s why our responses have been a bit formal and legalistic. It’s so we can protect ourselves.” She did explain that AT&T “will take a look at our processes to see where we can do better going forward.”