Rhetorical & #TechComm Analysis of AT&T “CPNI” Opt-Out Email

As I have mentioned in previous posts (analysis of hacking responses and Kickstarter PR response), as more PR and marketing communications concern technical issues (either directly regarding a technology or technological information about a product or service) there is a need for writers who can write both technical and rhetorically — that is, knowing not just what to say but how and where.

“We operate in a world of information coming from engineers, journalists, and PR and marketing specialists and their practices (and abuses) influence the way technical writers are perceived. The average individual doesn’t notice who it is generating information and doesn’t necessarily know a technical writer from a PR specialist—how the education and degrees differ, how the jobs differ. As a consequence, we have to be vocal about who we are and how we contribute, vocal about the ethical principles of this profession. We have to be vocal about, for example, that the PR specialists we’re working with might be violating their declared principles. And if technical writers are asked to do PR, we have to know the code of conduct for that profession as well as for Technical Communication” (Dr. Sam Dragga, ENGL 5385).

What my analysis emphasizes

  • The need for PR and Technical Communications departments to collaborate on these communiqués is essential to ensure that users are properly instructed on what they need to do and that users are treated fairly (both ethically and with UX).
  • This post merely attempts to highlight the obvious rhetorical devices employed by AT&T in how they communicate the necessary information to their users. This is not meant to be an in-depth analysis. My primary interest is the usability of the content and design  to help users understand what’s being asked of them and what they need to do. My opinion is that issues such as these (which are occurring much more frequently) are the purview of not only PR writers but also Technical Communicators. I will try to point out where and how Technical Communicators could contribute to content such as this.

AT&T “CPNI” Opt-Out Email


I received an email from AT&T (from the email address “AT&T Account Services <customerNotifications@online.att-mail.com>”) and as a current AT&T customer, I did read it–this is relevant in that I receive many emails from many companies every day (including AT&T) and I sometimes read them and other times just delete them. I wonder how many people just delete this one?

Subject line of the email: “An important message about the privacy of your customer information”

This isn’t a new issue with AT&T as I found when searching the Internet, but it was the first I’ve (knowingly) been contacted regarding it and the first time I’ve ever heard of “CPNI”.

The poster shared many of my concerns with the content and design of the message:

Second, they were going to take my private info anyway if I did not respond the long, confusing e-mail with unfamiliar abbreviations like CPNI. They are profiting from every instance of non-response. Most people don’t have the time or don’t care enough to contact AT&T and request not to have their privacy invaded.

The language used is deceptive: “By checking this box I am requesting that AT&T restrict the use of my CPNI.” that’s the quote. See, it seems like they are restricting you, because of the purposefully confusing language. In reality, they are being restricted. I wonder what they have to gain that they would phrase it in a backwards way like this, surely AT&T has no concern for clarity when communicating with customers.

Bad show guys. Most people aren’t going to notice, the rest probably won’t care, but I hope there are a few people who demand more from a company they pay thousands of dollars to annually.

So, here is an email with big words and confusing language, meant to help me protect my privacy.  I would think that it would be written in a simpler, more direct manner if the company was really interested in protecting my privacy.  But, that’s just me, I guess.

AT&T CPNI Privacy Email

AT&T CPNI Privacy Email with callouts and numbers added

For full-sized image see http://online.att-mail.com/postsales/20140325/20140325_att_cpni.php

  • First, I had to go look up “CPNI”

“The rules in the 2007 CPNI Order include:

Limits the information which carriers may provide to third-party marketing firms without first securing the affirmative consent of their customers…”

Does no response constitute an “affirmative consent”? Wikipedia says the following, but this is new information to me that I’ll have to follow-up on further:

“Note that as long as an affiliate is “communications” related, the FCC has ruled that CPNI is under an opt-out approach (can be shared without your explicit permission).”

  1. The all caps title of the communication is difficult to read not only because it is written in all caps, but also because the document design results in a ragged-right format that distorts the message.
    Technical Communication – I recommend removing or moving the “Important account information” graphic and giving more room to the title of the document.
  2. In a customer-facing email about anything and especially regarding privacy, this is standard legal/PR jargon. Actions speak louder than purported words and if a company really cares, they will show it.
    Technical Communication – The whole first paragraph is useless as it barely contributes to better understanding or serves as a conceptual or contextual introduction to the information that follows.
  3. The second paragraph is one sentence long! Not only is that sentence a lot for a reader to digest, but the important subject is interrupted with a really long parenthetical.
    Technical Communication – Look at the difference when all the ancillary information is removed. What they are trying to say is much more clear, and unfortunately, much more ominous sounding:
    AT&T companies would like to share your customer proprietary network information within the AT&T family of companies for our own marketing purposes, including using that information to offer you additional products and services.
  4. The contextual information AT&T provides to educate the reader about CPNI is equally difficult to understand. I performed a readability analysis on this paragraph using the online tool from Readability-Score.com:
    Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease: 59.2
    Average Grade Level     10.3

    Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Scores

    Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Scores

    Technical Communication – The overall scores for the entire document are:

    Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease     54.2
    Average Grade Level     11.4

    This communication is delivered via email and available online as a web page and as far as I know, is not primarily available in printed form. Because of this, AT&T (and other companies that deliver digital content) aren’t taking advantage of the Internet and the technology available to help users comprehend and interact with information. For instance, AT&T could limit the text used to explain CPNI in the middle of the “introductory” content and the “primary content” that doesn’t appear until the fourth paragraph in the message. They could do this by hyperlinking to other pages, using popups for those interested in learning more, or including a brief note with an anchor to footnotes at the bottom of the document.

  5. Finally! We reach the most important information for the reader. I tend to give people and organizations the benefit of the doubt until I learn otherwise. From my reactions to other cases of distorted messaging, I tend to attribute it to the principle stated in the quote at the beginning of this post–that technical information or information that deals with technology (which all digital content will, I believe) needs to be created by those trained with the rhetorical abilities to create and deliver this content.
  6. This is the “task” that users need to perform based on the information presented above (if they could decipher it).
    Technical Communication – This content belongs with #5 above and should be displayed higher in the document and much more prominently.

Anytime I see an unordered list in an email, I am already suspicious –Fer
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When I see a task in a PR/Marketing email, I always pay a little closer attention. I try to imagine whether a technical writer (who is trained and PAID to write tasks all day, and whose purview this is) ever saw the content, helped to draft it, or provided any feedback.

I could take more time to rewrite the entire message to show how I would structure this document, but I think this post is long enough already and besides, that’s not what I’m paid to do… 😉


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Filed under Data Breach Analysis, Rhetoric, Technical Writing, User experience

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