UPDATE: AT&T's CEO has added his own apology. Scroll down to see it.
After getting bombarded with hate tweets for about an hour this afternoon, AT&T removed an image from Twitter that had been meant as a 9/11 tribute—a photo showing a hand holding a phone up in front of the Tribute in Light searchlights. "We apologize to anyone who felt our post was in poor taste. The image was solely meant to pay respect to those affected by the 9/11 tragedy," the company wrote in a follow-up tweet. (As of this writing, the photo remained up on AT&T's Facebook page. UPDATE: The photo was removed from Facebook as well, about another hour after the tweet came down.) An AT&T spokesman later reiterated that same statement when reached by Adweek.
The episode highlights yet again the difficult task of doing any corporate messaging around 9/11. For AT&T, Wednesday's reaction on Twitter was an especially stinging rebuke, considering the company posted quite a similar style of photo last year on 9/11—and got much better feedback.
The difference? Last year's image showed the Freedom Tower, and the headline read, "Standing tall." It was simply a more forward-looking, patriotic execution. The Tribute in Light is a more sacred image, and this year's headline, "Never forget," is incompatible with any hint of a sales message, even one as simple as the image of a phone.
In the end, 9/11 may not be totally off limits to brands—American Express and many others posted well-received tweets today. But you'd better be careful, especially if you want to throw a product in there, too.
We apologize to anyone who felt our post was in poor taste. The image was solely meant to pay respect to those affected by the 9/11 tragedy.
— AT&T (@ATT) September 11, 2013
UPDATE: AT&T's chairman and CEO, Randall Stephenson, has now posted his own apology on the company's blog. It reads:
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 honor those impacted by the events of 9/11. Unfortunately, the image used in the post fell woefully short of honoring 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 commercialized. I commit AT&T to this standard as we move forward.
—Randall Stephenson, AT&T Chairman and CEO