SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- From its perch as the exclusive provider of cellphone text voting for "American Idol," AT&T has reaped lots of revenue from millions of voting fans -- not to mention millions of dollars in publicity and on-air mentions. But now AT&T finds itself with some unwelcome PR amid charges that it may have swung the outcome of the top-rated talent show.
According to a New York Times story citing the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, employees for AT&T distributed phones to folks at two finale parties organized by fans of Kris Allen, the Arkansas singer who was crowned this year's "Idol" winner. The phones allowed Mr. Allen's supporters to text their votes for their native idol, while the AT&T employees reportedly also gave free text-messaging lessons, including how to send multiple texts with the press of a single button, a practice known as power texting. (According to the show's website: "The producers reserve the right to remove any identified 'power dialing' votes. Note that this applies to both toll-free and text-messaging votes.")
Some it chalk up to a few local AT&T employees trying to be helpful and going too far, noting that the math does not bear out the allegations, considering there were 100 million votes cast in the season finale, and a voting bloc in Arkansas would be unlikely to influence the final count.
Complaints from fans
Still, AT&T could take a hit because of the show's passionate fan base. "I definitely believe AT&T should be held accountable for their conflict of interest in this situation! They used the enthusiasm of the residents of Arkansas for their own end -- money," wrote one incensed fan on a blog. Fans of the losing contestant, Adam Lambert, are also loudly complaining in online chat rooms and on message boards.
An AT&T spokesman said in a statement, "In Arkansas, a few local AT&T employees were invited to attend two local watch parties organized by the community. Caught up in the enthusiasm of rooting for their hometown contestant, they brought a small number of demo phones with them and provided texting tutorials to those who were interested.
"Going forward, we will make sure our employees understand our sponsorship celebrates the competition, not individual contestants. That said, it's quite a leap to suggest that a few individuals could have impacted the final results."
Fox Broadcasting Co., which airs "American Idol," issued a joint statement with the show's producers, FremantleMedia North America and 19 Entertainment: "Fox and the producers of 'American Idol' are absolutely certain that the results of this competition are fair, accurate and verified. Kris Allen is, without a doubt, the American Idol. We have an independent third-party monitoring procedure in place to ensure the integrity of the voting process. In no way did any individuals unfairly influence the outcome of the competition."
Experts said both companies need to step up their communication to avert false perceptions that can be forming quickly. "They need to respond promptly, aggressively and honestly, because whatever is said, especially on the internet, becomes reality," said Jonathan Bernstein, who consults on crisis communications. "If someone else is positioning the truth one way and AT&T doesn't position it another way, it's like king of the hill -- someone else is on top of the hill."
Volume of texts
AT&T, the No. 2 U.S. carrier, struck a sponsorship deal with "American Idol" in 2003 that allowed only users of its cellphones to cast votes via text message. Since then the volume of text votes related to the show, including sweepstakes and trivia, has jumped. This year the carrier processed 178 million "American Idol"-related text messages, vs. last year's 78 million.
Some say the flap is unlikely to nick AT&T's "Idol" sponsorship and should blow over soon, though it could give the producers a negotiation point when the two parties revisit their contract in the future, said Karl Barnhart, partner at CoreBrand.
One lesson is that even though just a handful of AT&T employees may have gone rogue, they are still the brand ambassadors. "The employees are the brand, and if you don't hold them to the philosophy of the brand, then of course it's going to impact" it, said Eric Zeitoun, president at consultant Dragon Rouge USA. "The brand is not just an institution, an icon -- they're also experiences, and it's about the people who live and breathe the brand. So if their employees screw up, it's going to impact the brand negatively."