From Seeing Through the Illusion: Understanding Apple’s Mastery of the Media, a profile examining Apple’s PR strategy:
Product Reviews, Briefings, & Reviewer’s Guides
The attention that Apple’s PR and Communications group puts into events can even be seen in the packages that reviewers receive with new iPhones, iPads, and Macs. Apple’s review units are considered the holy grails of pre-release technology products, and only a small number of hand-selected, generally positive writers are granted the first shot at reviewing the new gear. Former Apple PR representatives recalled being instructed to specifically inspect individual iPhone and iPad boxes for scuff marks and minor scratches before handing the units off to reviewers such as Walt Mossberg, David Pogue, and Ed Baig. Every unit had to be perfect.
Mossberg was the Personal Technology Columnist for the Wall Street Journal and is now Co-Executive Editor of Re/code. Pogue was lead tech reviewer for The New York Times and is now the chief of Yahoo’s tech section. Ed Baig is a long-time columnist for USA Today. These writers not only have a common denominator of working at major publications, but are also the only three U.S. journalists to have been granted early access to every new iOS device (including the first iPhone and iPad) since 2007. According to a report, Apple’s concern over these writers was significant enough that an engineer was reportedly pulled off vacation to personally help Pogue when he experienced a problem with an Apple TV before its debut in stores. Two of them were mentioned in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs as the only journalists Apple really cares about.
Over the years, Apple has expanded early product review opportunities to technology websites such as CNET, The Verge, and Engadget. The late 2011/early 2012 editorial transition from Engadget to The Verge demonstrates how Apple PR occasionally caters more to writers than publications. During the iPhone 4S and Retina iPad launch season, former Engadget editors launched The Verge, and while the nascent Verge received early access to those new Apple products, the new team at the established Engadget did not.
With Apple yet to launch a new iOS device during the post-Mossberg era at The Wall Street Journal, it will be interesting to see if the Journal’s new technology group receives early access to the upcoming iPhone 6, new iPads, and Apple’s wearable device. With Apple already granting the Journal interview access for glowing profiles of now-former executives and pre-earnings call discussions with Tim Cook, early access to review hardware will likely be the case, as well.
Another interesting point is Apple opening up review opportunities to bloggers such as John Gruber and Jim Dalrymple. Beginning with the Verizon iPhone 4 (in Gruber’s case) and the iPhone 4S (in Dalrymple’s case), Apple’s biggest blogger fans began receiving early review units and special attention from the company. Gruber famously described an “Apple press event for one” delivered to him personally by marketing chief Phil Schiller before the release of OS X Mountain Lion in 2012. One journalist from a major publication noted that Apple’s attention to Gruber and Dalrymple was somewhat surprising, given that their blogs hardly get as much attention or readership as bigger names such as Bloomberg, Time and WIRED. Another journalist noted dryly that the bloggers’ words are widely repeated when they serve as Apple’s attack dogs, so Apple keeps them happy, despite whatever their raw traffic numbers might be.
Just as the chart shows Apple expanding review hardware access, it also shows Apple subsequently taking away access. While Gizmodo reviewed the 2009 iPhone 3GS, the blog fell out of favor with Apple around the launch of the first iPad. The subsequent situation surrounding the lost iPhone 4 sealed Gizmodo‘s fate, and it never received early Apple hardware again. Macworld, previously an Apple trade show partner, has not received early hardware since the launch of the first Retina iPad. Speculation suggests that less than entirely positive interactions between the publications and Apple’s PR team led to the loss of early product access.
In other cases, Apple has offered gear to certain niche publications. Technical analysis-focused reviews site AnandTech received early access to the iPhone 5s and iPad Air, the first smartphone and tablet to include 64-bit processors. BoingBoing, a wide-ranging site with a focus on culture, received early access to both the first iPad and the iPhone 4 at a time when Apple wanted to spread its new technologies to a wider range of consumers across the globe, and may have been seeking cover against accusations of using lock-out hardware. Similarly, The Root, a website focused on African-American culture, received early access to the original two iPad models.
Also likely contributing to which publications get early access to products is the nature of pre-coverage — angles taken by writers during the product rumors cycle. As Brian Lam put it, “Apple can already tell what a review is going to say from [a publication's] pre-coverage, and they’re not going to give you a review unit if you’re not going to play ball.” In other words, Apple feeds the writers who will do its bidding, and starves the ones who won’t follow its messaging.
After an event, Apple does not leave reviews just up to individual hands-on time with a product and memories from the keynote address. Alongside the hardware, Apple provides writers with a “Reviewer’s Guide.” Meant to focus reviewers’ attention on key marketing points, making the “reviewing” process earlier, these booklets include many of the same phrases used on Apple’s website, but they sometimes also include some twists on reality.
For instance, the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina display packet implied that the Air and the new Mini were virtually the same product aside from screen size. “Both iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina display deliver the full iPad experience, leaving just one question to be answered. Which size is right for you?,” reads the guide. Some early reviews followed Apple’s guide, claiming outright that both products are the same aside from size, but actual testing demonstrated that Apple’s claim was far from the truth. The display on the iPad Air is actually far superior in terms of color reproduction, and the processor in the iPad Air is slightly faster than the one in the Retina mini. Reviewers following Apple’s guide didn’t catch either of the issues, suggesting that some writers should do more testing of their products before accepting Apple’s marketing claims as pure truth.
While having early access to the latest iPhone or iPad is certainly game-changing for some publications in terms of traffic, the review process is sometimes as much as a curse as it is a blessing. One Apple product reviewer suggests that the “NDA is unrealistic for any modern journalism organization, but hey, that doesn’t stop Apple.” Secrecy is required to surround the products while they’re in reviewers’ hands. The same writer added, “I was told not to let anyone else even know I had it, so I write, edit, and shoot my videos all myself.” Needing to create a video-laden review of a complex, flashy gadget could be the effort of more than one individual, so Apple-imposed secrecy makes just doing a good job difficult.
Publications have clearly realized that sometimes it takes more than just a few days to review a new iPhone, so some websites like The Verge have begun publishing their reviews when they are ready (so they claim), rather than when Apple would like them to — now usually on the Tuesday or Wednesday at 6PM Pacific Time if the new product is launching on a Friday. Relatively few other publications have deliberately steered clear of Apple’s review program, but those that have typically cite the company’s efforts to control them as reasons to remain independent.