I have no idea if T-Mobile CEO John Legere has ever read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals… but he’s sure acting like he has. Rules for Radicals, if you don’t know, was manifesto written by left-wing community organizer Saul Alinsky and has acted as sort of a handbook for political activists. The politics of the book itself are irrelevant, however, because its core insights can be applied to the business world as well as the political world.
Once you skip past a lot of the political jargon, Rules for Radicals is basically a book about how smaller groups with fewer resources successfully win public relations battles against larger groups with more resources. I promise I won’t make this into one of my undergrad political science classes but there are three “rules” that really stand out for me when thinking about what T-Mobile has been doing to AT&T in recent months: “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy”; “ridicule is man’s most potent weapon”; and “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
How does this apply to T-Mobile’s strategy? Well, it’s picked AT&T as its target to ridicule and it’s choosing to make the company look ridiculous by making it go outside of its comfort zone.
On the surface this doesn’t sound revolutionary since underdog companies have used ridicule to bash established players in ads for years — recall Apple’s “I’m a Mac / I’m a PC” campaign against Microsoft and Samsung’s campaign making fun of Apple fans if you need examples. But there’s a performance art aspect to Legere’s tactics that makes them much more brazen, in-your-face and, dare I say it, radical than your typical television ad.
Take Legere’s decision to crash AT&T’s CES party this week. When AT&T reps learned that Legere was at the party, they could have done one of two things. First, they could have let him stay at the party, which meant he would have taken a bunch of goofy pictures of himself standing next to top AT&T honchos and posted them on Twitter. This would have been good for a few laughs at AT&T’s expense but it also would have shown that AT&T is a good sport that isn’t afraid to let its competitor poke fun at it.
Instead, however, AT&T decided to act like a stuffy, humorless corporate behemoth and toss Legere out of the party. What’s more, its actions increased the chance that Legere’s decision to crash the party would draw headlines from tech publications, which is exactly what happened.
All of T-Mobile’s actions are similarly geared toward making AT&T reactive and uncomfortable. Because he’s the head of T-Mobile, a carrier that has traditionally been a second-rate player with a reputation for shoddy service, Legere can act much less professionally than AT&T executives can and can pull off zany stunts like his party-crashing endeavor without looking like a complete jerk.
What’s more, Legere and T-Mobile don’t face the same intense pressure from Wall Street to deliver sky-high operating margins that Verizon and AT&T do — rather, their investors are for now just happy to see the company is actually improving its market share position. This means T-Mobile can be much more aggressive with its pricing policies and can toss out wireless industry staples such as service contracts and data caps that help the bottom line but that also annoy subscribers.
Doing all this has forced AT&T to play outside of its comfort zone and the company so far has reacted with what can only be described as panic. I honestly never would have thought that AT&T would make a $200 offer specifically to T-Mobile subscribers to switch carriers based on nothing but a rumor… but that’s exactly what it did this week.
I’m not sure exactly what AT&T should do to combat Legere’s constant barrage against it but the carrier’s public relations team could do much worse things this weekend than curling up with a copy of Saul Alinsky writings. Otherwise they’ll find themselves making the same sorts of mistakes that other targets have always made when confronting populist insurgencies.