The year-old Public Relations News Operations Center (PRNOC) is the Dallas-based command central for AT&T’s extensive social media monitoring. In 2013 AT&T was honored by CIO magazine for its social-listening platform, able to scan real-time information from more than 150 million online sources and yet “decipher the impact and relevance of a single tweet.” TRUE talked to Brooks Thomas, the company’s director of digital and social media, about how well the center has lived up to its promise of real sentiment in near real time.
Q: What was AT&T trying to achieve when it originally created the PRNOC and has the center lived up to those expectation?
Brooks Thomas: The PRNOC has been our canary in the mine. It combines social listening and action in near real time, which allows us to examine what people are talking about nationally or by region. We can check out sentiment, and we are able to measure influence, and we combine that with traditional and non-traditional news sources and blogs. From all that, we get a very comprehensive look at what people are saying about AT&T—and the rest of the industry. With that insight and the very large detail we get, we’re able to act and respond quickly. It really helps not just reactively, but proactively as well.
But that’s a very basic answer because the objective of being able to listen and execute in near real time was seen and achieved, I think, almost immediately. The PRNOC is evolving and proving to be so much more than a tool for communications. The unanticipated advantage has been the cohesion it has engendered. It has brought many departments together. The social and other publicly available data we can analyze and the reports that we can produce are strong. I think the PRNOC has showed the other departments the value of corporate communications because these reports have often provided insight into their operations as well. For instance, our combined social media reporting can color an issue. Volume might be high for a given topic while customer care cases remain low. That means a lot of people may be talking, but they’re not having fundamental customer issues. The PRNOC has become a nucleus of that reporting.
Q: How did the PRNOC factor into the recent launch of a new smartphone you don’t want me to mention by name?
Thomas: The launch was at 2 a.m. Central Time. Bright and early, people were getting online to fire off their orders on the website. We had folks monitoring social media on the PRNOC for issues. On the whole, it was a pretty smooth launch. But early on we started to get a couple of messages from folks that the tax calculator wasn’t working. The PRNOC really was able to magnify the issue to let us know, “Hey, it’s not just one or two people. In fact, a lot of people are talking about this.” They couldn’t calculate the tax on their purchase. Thanks to the PRNOC, we were able to alert the appropriate people and get that fixed within an hour. Back online we saw an immediate turn in sentiment.
There was also a small problem with people who were ordering the silver phones. When they got their confirmation, it showed a picture of a white one and people began to worry if in fact they were getting a white phone, not a silver one. Even though the words said the right thing, the picture got them confused. So we alerted our e-commerce team and they switched the image; problem solved.
Neither of these were huge issues. But being able to be responsive to customers, particularly at 2 a.m., can be the difference between a good launch and a great one.
Q: How will insights from PRNOC help you with future smartphone launches?
Thomas: With things you might not think of. The recent launch took place at midnight Pacific Time everywhere, so 3 a.m. Eastern, etc. But stores where the phones could be purchased opened up at 8 a.m. local time. So the response there was staggered. It was like watching fans do the wave at a game. But here’s where the PRNOC can really affect even our operations and supply chain. PRNOC can show us, “Hey, the store in Tallahassee, Florida, really has a passionate following.” We know we need to make sure that it’s adequately staffed for something like any widely anticipated smartphone launch and with enough inventory. We see that from social. Maybe we thought they had enough personnel, but you’ll hear on social what customers thought.
Q: In what other situations has the PRNOC proved valuable?
Thomas: On 9/11, we put up an image that people saw as an advertisement, but we didn’t intend it to be. They responded differently than we anticipated. This was crisis management. The PRNOC served as a line of defense. We see the immediate spike; we get the alert; we know something’s wrong. We had to redirect, and PRNOC allowed us to make that decision very fast. Where formerly you had to make the case qualitatively, we were able to make the case quantitatively. We were able to say, “Look at the numbers, they’re there. The numbers don’t lie. We need to do something. We need to pivot.” We took the picture in question down and issued an apology. The PRNOC let us move quickly and decisively.
I’d like to think that even without it, we would have seen the issue, but it would have sounded more like, “This is what people are saying and it seems to be coming in pretty fast. We don’t know exactly how many people have been talking, and it started at this time. This is our recommendation.” I just think it would have taken a lot longer to mobilize and do the right thing.
Q: Are you gaining insights into what the next iteration of PRNOC should be?
Thomas: One of the things that we would really like to have with the PRNOC is selective storage of social and other publicly available data. Data isn’t always getting archived, and we want a historical view going forward to allow us to better analyze trends. There’s still so much more we can do to marry together internal and external analytics. We’ve been looking at intuitive data. It’s the next generation of artificial intelligence, where it knows your patterns and then says, “Hey, we see you pulling this report on a weekly basis, would you like to store it?” It’s intuitive about what it keeps.
Having an archive like that helps us get more predictive. Like for the next popular launch. The archive would help us answer questions on what kind of messages we may need, on staffing, on inventory, etc. The PRNOC, even as it stands today, gives us tremendous foresight and extends far beyond corporate communications. We are able to get so granular with it that at times it can be overwhelming, paralytic. I think that’s one of its detractors, but it’s a good problem to have.