Twenty-four hours. That's how long it took for Verizon Wireless to get the message.
The carrier said Friday that it was scrapping a $2 charge for one-time online or telephone bill payments. The announcement of the new fee, made a day earlier, had sparked an immediate online uproar from irate customers.
Consumers took to the Web to voice their frustrations. A petition on Change.org urging Verizon to drop the fee had more than 100,000 signatures by Friday afternoon. The Federal Communications Commission said it was "concerned" about the fee and would look into the matter.
Verizon is the latest company to reverse a controversial decision amid consumer backlash. In October, Netflix quashed much-ridiculed plans to separate its DVD rental service into a new division called Qwikster. A month later, Bank of America backtracked on a $5 fee on debit card usage.
Verizon's hasty retreat illustrates how social media platforms arm individuals with the tools to push back against perceived unfairness. The climate of frustration coming out of the Occupy movements nationwide, combined with successful campaigns such as the one against Bank of America, have further emboldened consumers to voice their anger, observers said.
"People have been angry about fees and surcharges for decades; it's just now the immediacy of social media that allows them to react to it," said Ron Culp, professional director of the master's program in public relations and advertising at DePaul University's College of Communication. "Traditionally, these decisions have been made with little fanfare.''
In the old days, prior to the birth of Facebook in 2004, companies had predicting consumer response almost down to a science, said Culp. Today, smart companies need to anticipate how their moves could play in social media or risk getting crushed by consumers.
"When people start to recognize the power of coming together, they're more likely to start campaigns. They expect to be heard," said Ben Rattray, chief executive of Change.org, a website that allows users to organize online campaigns. "And when they're not heard, they're more frustrated than when they didn't expect to be heard."
The Verizon petition on Change.org was started by Molly Katchpole, a Washington, D.C., resident whose Change.org campaign against Bank of America's proposed debit card fee racked up 300,000 supporters.
Rattray said that after the bank reversed course on the fee, the number of new petitions on Change.org doubled, from 5,000 a month to 10,000 a month. The issues range from gay rights in Cameroon to puppy mills in the U.S., but the campaigns are all about "collections of authentic individuals coming together in real time," rather than a single advocacy group making a demand, he said.
Rattray said he hopes the string of successful consumer campaigns will act as a deterrent against unfair corporate practices.
The largest impact "is not getting companies to change the next time, but to stop companies (from) doing it in the first place," Rattray said. "Over time, the culture we want is not one where people are taking action all the time on everything, but one where people making decisions recognize the potential of mobilization."
For its part, Verizon said it decided to scrap the $2 fee "in response to customer feedback."
"Based on (customers') input, we believe the best path forward is to encourage customers to take advantage of the best and most efficient options, eliminating the need to institute the fee at this time," Verizon CEO Dan Mead said in a statement.
That was probably a good move, Culp said, noting that he has used the immediacy of the Internet to express his views and get results.
Unhappy with his extra-foamy green tea lattes, he submitted an email complaint to Starbucks via its website. He got a $10 gift card for his trouble.
He was being nice. "Had they not responded, I would have Facebooked or tweeted."
Tribune news services contributed.
2011: The year of annoying fees
If the outrage over Verizon's $2 fee sounds familiar, it's because this plot has been rehashed again and again this year.
Airlines: In June, Spirit Airlines devised a $5 fee for customers who have an agent print their boarding passes at the airport. In February, US Airways hiked its fees for overweight and oversize luggage to $90.
Hotels: The most ubiquitous new fee was a Wi-Fi charge of $10 to $20.
Banks: Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase and others planned to levy monthly fees of between $3 and $5 on customers for using their debit cards. Executives eventually backed off.— CNN