AT&T CEO John Stankey’s refund letter was a masterclass in corporate crisis. Here’s why.

Any letter that promptly gives a refund to thousands of customers is a good letter, but some letters are better than others.

Tom Corfman is one of the customers looking forward to a $5 credit. He’s a senior consultant with RCG.

Any letter that promptly gives a refund to thousands of customers is a good letter, but some letters are better than others.

AT&T CEO John Stankey’s refund announcement on Feb. 25, 2024, just three days after a massive outage, was a masterful response to an intense, if short-lived, corporate crisis.

The prompt action was widely covered by the news media, shifting the coverage from customers’ troubles to the company’s action.

While his “letter to employees” got the job done, the writing didn’t match the brilliance of the strategy. We have five questions and edits that would have made the letter more effective. But first a little background.

No service
Stankey knows the phone business. The Pasadena, Calif. native in 1985 took a job out of college with Pacific Bell, which eventually became part of AT&T. He worked his way up, becoming CEO in 2020.

The outage began in the early hours of Feb. 22, with service restored by noon. The company hasn’t disclosed how many of its 90 million cellphone subscribers were affected, but Downdetector, which monitors disruptions, counted more than 1.5 million reports of problems.

Whatever the total amount of the refund, the comms giant says it won’t significantly affect its financial performance. Revenue was $122.42 billion last year.

The letter has some pretty good lines, such as this one, “This is not our first network outage, and it won’t be our last—unfortunately, it’s the reality of our business.”

Here are the edits and questions we would have proposed if we had been Stankey’s editor:

1. Who’s the audience? While called a “letter to employees,” much of it was meant for customers and the broader audience, and not just the refund offer. Writing internal memos with an eye toward external audiences is a sound practice considering how quickly things are spread on social media. But you must decide which audience is the primary target.

For example, if the primary audience is employees, they aren’t addressed until the seventh paragraph, which is well-written and begins, “Whenever a challenging or unexpected event impacts this company, I can always count on everyone to rise to the occasion and the last few days have been no exception.” Let’s move that up.

If the focus is customers, mention the refund earlier than the fifth graph, as journalists call them, and add three words to Stankey’s first sentence, “Thursday was a challenging day for our customers and our company.”

2. We screwed up. His second sentence is straightforward: “Our purpose is to connect people to greater possibility, and we fell short of what we typically do so well each and every day.”

His apology is clear but doesn’t come until the fourth graph, after a 129-word description of the cause and length of the interruption.

“No matter the timing, one thing is clear—we let down many of our customers, including many of you and your families. For that, we apologize,” he says.

The background is important but shouldn’t get in the way of the primary message.

3. How much? The amount of the refund was of keen interest to customers and the news media, but the company made everyone hunt for it.

Stankey never put a dollar amount on the refund, saying only it would be credit “for essentially a full day of service.” The amount is on a separate web page entitled, “Making it right,” which isn’t linked in Stankey’s letter or the news release posting the letter.

On that page, a footnote reads:

Credit does not apply to AT&T Business Enterprise and Platinum accounts, AT&T Prepaid or Cricket.

One $5 credit per account on your AT&T WirelessSM account.

Bill credits will typically be applied within 2 bill cycles.

Is this why they say you need to read the fine print on cellphone contracts?

4. Jargon jungle. Stankey’s had several high-level tech positions, which may explain his explanation for what happened: “the application and execution of an incorrect process used while working to expand our network.”

In plain English, please? A “software update went wrong,” according to ABC News.

Then there are these sentences:

We all know that our customers receive tremendous value and convenience for the nominal daily cost of our service, and outages sometimes have outsized impacts on some subscribers that may be greater than the face value of the credit. For that reason, I believe that crediting those customers for essentially a full day of service is the right thing to do.

I think he’s trying to say: Crediting our customers for a full day of service is the right thing to do, even though the service wasn’t down for an entire day. I recognize that the cost of the outage on some customers may have exceeded a full day’s credit.

Of course, no corporate communication is complete with an “implemented,” and Stankey works it into the next to last paragraph.

5. Tighten up. The letter tips the scale at 686 words, taking up a printed page and a half. Much of the letter reads like it was hijacked by the marketing department, detracting from the important message. It could be trimmed to 500 words by simply eliminating the fluff.

Every day
Stankey has had bigger headaches than this outage. Before he became CEO, he played a key role in ATT’s 2018 acquisition of media giant Time Warner for $109 billion.

Time Warner flailed about under its new parent. Stankey, promoted to CEO in 2020, gave up on the acquisition. In 2022, he merged the renamed WarnerMedia unit with Discovery, resulting in a $47 billion loss to AT&T shareholders, according to The New York Times. The company disputed the newspaper’s calculation, saying the transaction benefited shareholders.

In an interview on CNBC in September, Stankey was asked when the stock market would recognize the value of his business strategy.

“I’m accountable every day,” he responded.

Some days more than others.

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