From Seeing Through the Illusion: Understanding Apple’s Mastery of the Media, a profile examining Apple’s PR strategy:
“The keynote is like a production. You have to have a special appreciation for it.”
You probably never knew that an audience member fainted during one of Steve Jobs’s keynotes. Quickly and without a pause, Apple PR representatives quickly guided paramedics to escort the ill man out of the venue, without causing even a blip in the presentation. As a member of Apple’s PR team recalled, preventing what would otherwise have been a show-stopping disruption was seamless, as potential hiccups in the event had been pre-considered “down to a science.” This anecdote demonstrates both Apple’s detailed approach to event planning and wider communications strategy: it has mastered the ability to control situations invisibly, without having its efforts noticed.
Beyond planning for rare life-threatening emergencies during keynotes, Apple PR also plans for more common message-disrupting concerns, such as suppressing rowdy crowd members, and preventing uninvited members of the media from getting in the doors. Apple PR even acts as “organic, non-obvious body guards” for individual Apple executives including Tim Cook and Senior VP of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller, physically blocking members of the media from getting sometimes meaningful or off-topic questions answered following presentations.
Apple’s preparation for keynote events extends beyond who presents what on stage, and who guards which executives from reporters. As a former member of Apple’s PR team told us, “the keynote is like a production. You have to have a special appreciation for it.” Every single element of the presentation is specifically determined in advance, from nuances of the lighting, to how screens are positioned, to who sits where within the venue. Lower-level Apple employees are strategically nestled within each event’s audience, different journalists are kept in specific positions, and Apple executives need not worry about last-minute changes. Everything’s under control.
The process starts weeks before keynote addresses. Apple’s PR/Communications and Marketing teams keep an eye on media reports to determine expectations, leaking information to temper expectations that won’t be matched by the announcements. Executives typically practice for two weeks in Apple’s Infinite Loop auditorium, and senior PR members prepare special white booklets to be handed out to the rest of the Communications group during a lengthy meeting, held about one week prior to the main event.
These books detail exactly what will be discussed and announced during the event, who will present each part, which Apple employees are responsible for what is demonstrated, how the product hands-on area will be organized, and who will be in attendance.
Following the pre-event “pep talk,” the white books are handed back to the PR team, and are sometimes shredded on site. Just as Apple takes extreme measures of secrecy during the development of products, the schedules for each keynote are guarded very closely. Although the general topics to be discussed are typically obvious to Apple-watchers, no keynote’s specific schedule has been accurately leaked in advance of an event.
Around the same time as this meeting, Apple sends out invitations to special guests, a small group of Apple employees, reporters from major news outlets including Bloomberg News, The New York Times, Reuters, and The Wall Street Journal, and a small group of reliably positive bloggers, including Daring Fireball’s John Gruber and The Loop’s Jim Dalrymple. Apple’s biggest boosters get early tips to expect and publicize the invitations; for instance, on the exact day Apple announced its latest event, Canadian blogger Dalrymple just happened to be in Cupertino, snapping photographs of a structure Apple was building for the event at the Flint Center. It’s difficult to just call that a coincidence.
During the weekend prior to an event, members of the Apple PR staff walk the halls of the keynote venue to ensure that every component of the presentation from the stage to the hands-on area is aligned as planned. Simultaneously, Apple executives engage in “dress rehearsals” on the keynote stage, practicing their usually-not-actually-off-the-cuff jokes.
Yet even with all of this careful planning, sometimes parts of keynotes go awry.
Assisted behind the scenes by a former Apple marketing executive, Allison Johnson, an unknown startup called Anki was invited to present a new product at the 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference keynote. Anki demonstrated an artificial intelligence-based, iOS-controlled race car kit that would later be sold as an Apple Store exclusive for $200. The play mat and miniature car product did not sound initially interesting when it was introduced, and its accompanying demonstration was even less impressive. A couple of minutes into the presentation, the demo failed, and Anki CEO Boris Sofman and his colleague were left sweating in distress, awkwardly trying to resume their pitch.
Behind the scenes, Apple PR members stationed behind the keynote stage felt nauseated witnessing significant errors in such a critical presentation. This was the keynote in which Apple planned to cement Tim Cook, Jony Ive, and Craig Federighi as the three public faces of Apple’s bright new future. Inviting Anki to show an expensive, not particularly compelling toy that couldn’t even work reliably on stage was a rare misstep for a company that prides itself on getting every detail correct. Unsurprisingly, Apple cut the scene from their posted recording of the event.
Setbacks aside, Apple’s media events typically turn out to be successful performances. Even though events in the Tim Cook era have been criticized as more predictable and mechanical than they were under Steve Jobs, their focus, energy, and sequencing have increasingly been mimicked by Apple’s competitors — a tribute to the strength of the format.