Apple wins in hushed battle over iPhone carrier

Articles that Verizon may soon be getting Apple's iPhone, ending AT&T's exclusivity it's enjoyed since the popular phone launched, have created somewhat of PR limbo for both carriers.

SAN FRANCISCO:  Articles that Verizon may soon be getting Apple's iPhone, ending AT&T's exclusivity it's enjoyed since the popular phone launched, have created somewhat of PR limbo for both carriers.

Potentially millions of paying wireless customers and iPhone sales are at stake, but until it's official both networks are mainly letting speculation swirl and remaining silent, even if it means putting vital PR efforts on ice.

“Nobody wants to do anything to upset the Apple cart,” said Candace Locklear, MD and head of the mobile practice at San Francisco-based tech agency SparkPR.

Many tech PR pros acknowledge it's classic Apple strategy to let buzz build up in the market. “Apple drives this whole thing,” said Gerard Corbett, CEO of PR consultancy RedPhlag. “Steve Jobs is driving the train and AT&T is not going to do anything to disturb that.”

Even so, staying silent in the fiery smartphone market could be detrimental for both networks, especially since iPhone users are eager for options and dropped calls and locked-in contracts have dogged AT&T in some markets, PR pros say.

“We expect most of our iPhone customers to stay with us whenever that exclusivity ends,” Mark Siegel, AT&T's executive director of media relations, said in a statement to PRWeek.

Verizon and AT&T declined to comment on any PR efforts surrounding the reports.

“It's tough to answer the rumor mill when nothing has been officially said,” said Edward Moed, MD of PR agency Peppercom. “There's a lot more at stake than how you are communicating your way through rumors.”

Whether Apple releases an iPhone for Verizon in three months or a year, it may be only a matter of time until AT&T loses exclusivity, and communications pros say both carriers could be doing more to win over iPhone customers now.

“To customers they [AT&T] are the big, dark ugly beasts,” said SparkPR's Locklear. “Excellent customer service is the best PR thing they can do.”

Essentially it comes down to which carrier can make an argument that they have better connectivity, network service, and price points. AT&T “should be laying the groundwork” for an incentive plan, said Locklear. “They should really be putting it out there,” she added.

Katie Neuman, SVP of digital PR agency the Horn Group in San Francisco, agrees. She says AT&T should be playing up the size of its network, attractive price points, the functionality of the iPhone on its network, as well as “showing greater humility,” she said.

“I don't think AT&T should underestimate what customers would do out of spite. Be careful about customers staying with you just because it's expensive to switch,” Neuman said.

For Verizon, the PR equation is both the same and different.

Some industry analysts have argued that Apple leaked rumors that it's building an iPhone for Verizon to hurt sales of Google Android smart phones heading into the holiday shopping season.

If Verizon customers thought the carrier would soon be getting the iPhone, the theory is that some may hold off from buying other smart phones, like Google's Android, Research in Motion's Blackberry or Microsoft's recently launched Windows Phone 7.

From a PR standpoint Verizon should underscore how well its network is handling other smart phones, given that some think Verizon's network isn't battle tested and large enough to handle the wireless demands of the iPhone as well, said Neuman.

“Verizon should continue to talk about how their network is prepared to grow in the future,” she said. “By the time it's announced the PR team will have done a good job managing expectations.”

Either way, PR pros say it's likely the mighty influence of Apple is controlling what can be said, or not said.

“It would be wise to come out of the gate charging once the muzzle is removed,” said Parry Headrick, VP of marketing at tech PR agency Shift Communications.

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