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AT&T has 48 hours to answer iPhone pricing complaints, says crisis expert

More than 8,000 sign Twitter petition demanding that AT&T rethink iPhone 3G S $200 surcharge

June 11, 2009 03:35 PM ET

Computerworld - AT&T has 24 to 48 hours to answer the rising tide of complaints from iPhone owners who are furious over its pricing policy for the new iPhone 3G S, a crisis communications expert said today.

"It's time for AT&T to step forward and be an industry leader," said Dallas Lawrence, vice president of digital media at Washington, D.C.-based Levick Strategic Communications. "The next 48 hours will be very telling. AT&T needs to embrace the message, to acknowledge a mistake's been made, and to make things good."

Lawrence was referring to the growing online campaign on Twitter and elsewhere by iPhone owners angry over AT&T's plan to charge an additional $200 to upgrade to the iPhone 3G S if they haven't fulfilled most or all of their two-year contract with the carrier. More than 8,000 people have "signed" a Twitter petition calling on AT&T to sell the new iPhone to current users for the same $199 and $299 prices it charges new subscribers.

The number of names on the Twitter petition has nearly doubled over the past 24 hours.

"AT&T has the opportunity to turn a potential negative into a positive," said Lawrence, who has managed crisis communications for a large number of public and government clients. In 2003, he served as the spokesman for Ambassador L. Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion.

"They should forget the immediate gratification [of higher revenue] and invest in the longer term to keep iPhone users," he said.

In his view, AT&T has a very small window to react to the online criticism. "The community will only get angrier and angrier," Lawrence said. "If AT&T acts fast, it will make the decision on its own, but past that 24-to-48-hour tipping point, it will look like they've been forced into it."

If AT&T were his client, Lawrence said, he would urge the company to immediately own up to its error and tell all iPhone owners that they can upgrade to the iPhone 3G S as soon as it's available, for $199 or $299.

"And they should say they will do that for every iPhone that Apple launches, because they want the iPhone users to be part of the AT&T family for life," said Lawrence. "That would be the type of statement that would be leading -- outside the industry norm -- and would let iPhone users know they can make a commitment to AT&T because AT&T has made a commitment to them."

AT&T's motivation to make such a move, said Lawrence, is self-serving. "Apple may open the iPhone to other networks in the U.S. within the next year," he said, referring to reports that Apple and AT&T are negotiating an extension to the latter's three-year contract as the exclusive carrier for the smartphone in the United States. "AT&T has a limited window to build their brand while they have a captive audience," Lawrence said. "What it doesn't want is to force Apple to make a decision based on this crisis."

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