AT&T controversial 9/11 Twitter post

This week people, politicians, companies and brands everywhere have been paying their respects to the 9/11 tragedy and those who lost their lives. Channel 4 among other stations, have been running documentaries and TV shows all week, recapping the horror of that day. But there was one company, AT&T, who got it all wrong and saw what is probably their biggest marketing flop to date. Read on about the AT&T 9/11 Twitter post.

Brands everywhere are hopping on the bandwagon of ‘real-time marketing’, since Oreo’s success of responding to the blackout at this year’s Superbowl. Many brands have got their ‘real-time marketing’ just right, while others not so much…and it seems this was quite a steep learning curve for AT&T.

AT&T 9/11 Twitter post

On one hand, connecting your brand to something such as the 9/11 devastation could work for a brand, it could show a more compassionate, caring side, a more human side – and we know how well a human touch is working for brands these days. But on the other hand, you could argue that there are some events which should just be left well-alone, or that there are some events which don’t work for brands at all and as a marketer, it is down to you to find that middle ground and know what works for your brand and what doesn’t. Unfortunately for AT&T it seems they must have missed that trick this year.

On September 11th 2013 AT&T posted a picture on Twitter of a hand holding up a phone in front of the tribute searchlights, where they were then bombarded with responses and hate tweets, before eventually removing the tweet an hour later. They then posted the following apology:

“We apologise to anyone who felt our post was in poor taste. The image was solely meant to pay respects to those affected by the 9/11 tragedy.” However, their apology was equally ill received.

AT&T 9/11 Twitter post


I personally didn’t see a problem with the AT&T 9/11 Twitter post. Don’t get me wrong, I’d argue in a heartbeat that corporate marketing on such an occasion is downright distasteful, however, I didn’t see their message as a form of corporate marketing. I’d say that yes, perhaps it was a bit of brand reinforcement, but this could be also be argued as looking too much into it. The image on the whole was done quite well and there was no sign of branding anywhere. Plus AT&T are a phone carrier, they don’t make mobile phones. If they had Photoshopped a huge signal tower or something into the skyline, or where the searchlights were, then I would fully understand the uproar. On the flip-side, perhaps the use of a mobile phone was just too close to their company’s expertise.

The instant response would be that brands just shouldn’t put out marketing messages related to 9/11. But what if brands genuinely want to pay their respects and connect with what their customers are going through? Who’s to say that wasn’t AT&T’s intention? And what is so different between them and the 9/11 messages put out by the likes of American Express?

AT&T 9/11 Twitter post

This isn’t the first 9/11 tribute for AT&T either. Last year they posted an image of the Freedom Tower with the headline “standing tall.” The post was actually very well received, so what was so different this year? And what did they do so wrong that American Express didn’t do? The only possible answer is that the image was just too closely-related to the company and what they do, where as Amex’s was completely disconnected from themselves.

As a brand, posting company messages on days like 9/11 is risky business, ‘real-time marketing’ is fantastic, when used correctly, but brands need to pick their battles and know what they should and should not be related to. Perhaps 9/11 needs to be left alone and left as a day for people to think and reflect, not to sell or connect, whatever your intentions.

After the aftermath of AT&T’s tweet, their CEO Randell Stephenson posted his own apology:

“We’re big believers that social media is a great way to engage with our customers, because the conversation is constant, personal and dynamic.

Yesterday, we did a post on social media intended to honour those impacted by the events of 9/11. Unfortunately, the image used in the post fell woefully short of honouring the lives lost on that tragic day.

I want to personally express to our customers, employees and all those impacted by the events of 9/11 my heartfelt apologies. I consider that date a solemn occasion each year, a time when I reach out to those I was with on that awful day, share a moment of reflection for the lives lost and express my love of country. It is a day that should never be forgotten and never, ever commercialised. I commit AT&T to this standard as we move forward.

– Randall Stephenson, AT&T Chairman and CEO.

What are your thoughts on the AT&T controversial 9/11 Twitter post outcry? Do you think they were wrong, or right to post the image? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or find me on Twitter.