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The California Wildfires: When Disaster Strikes, Your Brand Is at Stake

All of us watched with sadness and horror the scenes from Southern California last week. Wildfires raged across that part of the country, destroying countless homes and causing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people.

Not since Hurricane Katrina have scenes like this unfolded on American soil, and our hearts went out to the victims.

Two victims of the fire in San Diego County, Matt and Danelle Azola, focused on the loss of their home in a live television interview. Interestingly, the focus of the story wasn’t all the lost pictures, furniture and other important items that made up the Azola’s life.

The focus instead was on a phone call about a $300 satellite dish. A customer service representative with the Azola’s satellite television service provider, the Dish Network / AT&T, told the Azola’s when they called to cancel service that they would be billed immediately for the loss of the satellite dish – this despite the fact that the dish had been destroyed in the fire (and the Azola’s had just lost everything they own).

AT&T said later that the representative of the Dish Network who spoke with the Azola’s when they called did not understand the company’s policy concerning natural disasters – the bottom line being that the couple would not be charged for the loss of the satellite dish.

But by then, it was too late. The clip of the interview soon appeared on YouTube and Break dot com. Since appearing late last week on these two video networks alone, the clips have garnered some 300,000 views.

Here’s the YouTube clip … notice how the original poster has edited his/her own thoughts in at the end …

Worse yet, only a linked clip I saw on Gizmodo.com gave the AT&T response (but it is in text form below the video box – so if you aren’t looking for it you may not even be aware that there’s more to the story than the clip lets on).

Here’s a link to the Gizmodo clip (same exact video, just the AT&T response beneath the clip).

So if AT&T’s account is correct (and there’s no need to believe it isn’t), the actions of one call center employee have precipitated a PR nightmare for the company – one that in the age of You Tube, they can’t easily control. Anybody who wants to make the company look bad can link this video or send it to friends with absolutely no context.

We can argue some of the finer points of the situation … for instance, why did the reporter run with the Azola’s story without at least giving AT&T/Dish a chance to respond first? Or did they give that context and we just didn’t get that piece of information in that particular clip?

But the bottom line is this: the customer service representative of AT&T/Dish was in a position to take a very bad situation and in some small way make it a little better for the Azola’s.

I think we would all agree by that measure, the mission was not accomplished.

As credit unions formulate both front line and disaster policies, a key consideration has to be scenarios that arise in the lives of members – and how to address those issues with humanity and sensitivity.

After all, the Azola’s problem with AT&T wasn’t really the $300 satellite dish … it was the perceived lack of compassion the company showed for what they had really lost.


One Response

  1. This goes back to your post on policies. It is one thing to have a policy on something – it’s an entirely different issue to make sure that your employees are truly implementing your policy. This was a complete failure of AT&T to prep their call center about being sensitive to the heartaches of the wildfire victims. Nothing like taking millions of dollars in PR damage to save $300 on a satellite dish! As credit unions, we must always understand that written policy must leave room for compassion AND implementation.

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