What would you do if a failure by your company disrupted the lives of millions of people, and put millions more into potential danger by disabling emergency response systems? I'm guessing your first response wouldn't be to publicly say how wonderful your company is. Unless you were CenturyLink. The seventh largest telecom provider in the U.S. has done little more than brag since its more-than-24-hour-long outage began early Thursday morning.
The outage had real consequences. It spread right across the country, from New York to California. It knocked out 911 services in at least five states, Arizona, Washington, Idaho, Missouri, and Massachusetts. In Boston, a man whose house was on fire was unable to phone for help, and wound up pulling an old-fashioned 1852-era fire alarm on his street. Fortunately, that system was still operational and it sent a Morse code signal to the local fire department, which arrived and put out the fire.
The Federal Communications Commission has announced that it is investigating the outage, especially since it appears to have affected other providers' 911 services as well. As for CenturyLink, when it finally acknowledged that its outage was disrupting 911 it had some helpful advice for those in an emergency: drive to the nearest police or fire station.
As this example shows, the company may have been working to fix the problem, but its public communications were nothing short of awful. To begin with, you might expect any company in this situation to post a statement on its website acknowledging the outage and promising to resolve it as soon as possible--especially since support lines were likely overloaded and frustrated customers (not to mention emergency response people) couldn't get through. But no, CenturyLink's home page carries the same bursting-with-pride statement about its commitment to value as always. The "latest news" is a press release about digital business and cyber-security. Under support, the top "trending topic" is "Pay your bill online."
Rather than put out a press release or talk to the press, the company has referred both journalists and customers to its Twitter feed if they want to know more about the outage. So let's look at the @CenturyLink Twitter feed. Here's the top (pinned) item:
Yup, frustrated people who want to know what the heck is going on turn to CenturyLink's Twitter feed as directed to find out more--and the first thing they see is a brag about how proud the company is of its leaders.
But never mind. Maybe it didn't occur to the company's social media professionals that perhaps they should remove that pinned tweet for the duration of the outage. So let's see what they said about the outage itself. Here's @CenturyLink's first tweet about it:
Our network is experiencing a disruption affecting customer services. We understand some customers are currently unable to generate tickets through the CenturyLink help portal. We know how important these services are, we are working to restore services as quickly as possible.-- CenturyLink (@CenturyLink) December 27, 2018
Notice what's missing from this tweet? Probably the very first thing your company would say if it disrupted the lives and work of millions and put people in danger is an apology. But, nope, CenturyLink is just as slow to apologize as it is quick to brag. The company posted several repeats of essentially the same tweet at regular intervals throughout the day. Finally, shortly before midnight, it ended its message with an afterthought that would have been the first thought of any other company:
CenturyLink engineers and technicians identified a network element that was impacting customer services and are addressing the issue in order to restore services. We estimate services will be restored within four hours. We apologize for any inconvenience this caused customers.-- CenturyLink (@CenturyLink) December 28, 2018
Notice something else, in addition to the belated apology--CenturyLink said it found the problem but chose not to share any information about what it was. Instead, it merely referred to a "network element," a phrase that manages to be both vague and misleading at the same time. Misleading, because most people would guess that a "network element" is a piece of hardware within the network system, but the nationwide nature of the breakdown suggests a software problem or possibly a cyber attack. Although a CenturyLink representative told the New York Times that the incident was not hacking-related, before refusing to divulge any other information.
Finally, around 1 pm on Friday, more than 24 hours after the outage began, CenturyLink acknowledged what everyone already knew--that 911 services were being disrupted across the country. But CenturyLink had a helpful suggestion for what to do if you found yourself in an emergency:
We are aware of some 911 service disruptions affecting various areas through the United States. In case of an emergency, customers should use their wireless phones to call 911 or drive to the nearest fire station or emergency facility. Technicians are working to restore services.-- CenturyLink (@CenturyLink) December 28, 2018
Twitter users, of course, had some lively responses to that suggestion:
"Im being murdered let's drive to the fire station"-- Temm (@TemmTem_Furry) December 28, 2018
Would smoke signals work? What about two soup cans and a string?-- FUTsarnaev (@Crookd_Hilary16) December 28, 2018
Meantime, the bragging wasn't quite done.
While our network is experiencing service disruptions, where CenturyLink is the 911 service provider 911 calls are completing.-- CenturyLink (@CenturyLink) December 28, 2018
That's a pretty disingenuous tweet, considering that CenturyLink's outage appears to have disrupted some non-CenturyLink 911 services as well as those the company itself provided.
Meantime, some Twitter users zeroed in on what seems to be the real problem:
Whoever is managing this account is way way out of their depth. You do realize that many of the 911 dispatches are using CenturyLink and that Verizon Mobile was down because of you.-- Boatman Accounting (@BoatmanAcctg) December 28, 2018
You have to wonder why CenturyLink hasn't put more effort, resources, or even training into its communications so as to come across better during a serious failure of the public trust. Perhaps its leaders believe that being one of the nation's largest telecom providers means there's no need to worry about infuriating customers, first responders, state governments, or even the FCC. If so, they may find out that they're wrong.