From Seeing Through the Illusion: Understanding Apple’s Mastery of the Media, a profile examining Apple’s PR strategy:
Apple’s PR department presents a cool, measured public-facing image: it only responds to press inquiries when it wants to, doesn’t offer quotes unless they’ll be reprinted without criticism, and responds directly only when it determines that something needs to be said by “Apple” rather than “sources familiar with the matter.” You could picture Apple’s PR strategy as the work of a wise, wealthy, and not particularly friendly queen – one always too busy to be bothered, until for some reason, she’s not.
So it’s a surprise that Apple actually isn’t that detached from the media: it’s more like a teenage girl obsessively keeping her fingers on the pulse of coverage. Members of Apple PR seek tabloid photos of celebrities holding iPhones, while others read Apple-focused blogs actively, and keep tabs on prominent Apple beat writers using anonymized social media accounts. A former Apple PR employee notes that the team enjoys being an “overall watchdog,” monitoring what the media is saying about the company every day. This oversight is so important to Apple that a few times a week, top executives are sent a document detailing the company’s latest press coverage. When Apple is not pleased with coverage, it sometimes works to shift the narrative, even attempting to undermine giant news organizations.
When Apple realized that The New York Times was gunning to win the Pulitzer Prize for its controversial iEconomy series on the Apple supply chain, Apple’s PR team sent articles criticizing The New York Times to other journalists, according to a person familiar with the strategy. Other people say that Apple used a similar approach to dispute some background information in Steve Jobs’ authorized biography by author Walter Isaacson, going after details that had not been directly provided by Jobs or Apple. Similarly, a journalist who covered Apple noted that the company will pitch a story in a specific way, and would “get annoyed” if the journalist wants to expand on the topic, or not use the angle that Apple was pitching.
Most recently, Apple utilized covert tactics to challenge a Reuters story about Apple’s accessibility practices. Reuters referred to Apple as a champion of the blind community, but called for the company to do even more work in the accessibility field. Unable to get Apple to comment for the story, the article quoted a 2013 Tim Cook speech to underscore Apple’s understanding of accessibility’s importance. Despite being unwilling to officially participate, Apple asked Reuters off the record to include more quotes from Cook’s speech, said a person familiar with the situation. Reuters declined, since the speech is publicly available material. Instead of commenting on-the-record before or after the article was published, Apple’s PR team disapprovingly pointed a loyal group of Apple-focused bloggers to the entire 2013 speech transcript, and these bloggers then used the supplied details to attack Reuters. As Fortune put it, “it didn’t take long for [Apple’s] friends in the media (with some gentle prodding from Apple PR) to strike back.” Despite being aware of the entire process, and having the opportunity to be positively, publicly involved, Apple publicly said nothing.
Saying little on-the-record is a classic Apple PR strategy.
“Their strategy is to say nothing; it keeps everyone guessing what Apple is up to, generates free publicity, and keeps them out of the trouble everyone gets into,” said a journalist with access to Apple PR. “Once you start answering questions, you get your foot in your mouth.” As a former member of Apple PR put it, “everything [related to Apple PR] is done strategically,” noting that “a lot of people don’t give credit to the art form of working on background.” This strategy is often executed when reporters contact Apple PR for comment or confirmation on a story. “If you were totally off-base, I would tell you” is the closest Apple will typically get to confirming a story that didn’t originate with the PR team, according to journalists at multiple major news outlets.
Other writers say that Apple will indirectly confirm or deny claims by sharing an analysis of the past track record of the particular author who originally wrote a story in question. Off-the-record, the company has warned journalists off of following the paths of other writers, or suggested that a relationship problem with Apple would be avoided if the journalist opts not to cover certain topics. These discussions can be helpful or stifling for the writer, but they’re generally all positive for Apple, which has the opportunity to shape what’s said.
In past years, Steve Jobs and Katie Cotton would meet with magazine publishers and big-name newspaper journalists to talk about Apple’s plans. Since the discussions were completely off-the-record, the “information would be useless,” according to a person with knowledge of the meetings. Yet these editors still were being given “insight into the company,” which led to glowing profiles of Apple, according to the source. Jobs and Cotton maintained this strategy well into the age of Internet publications, as “Jobs’s view of the media was stuck in the newspapers he had in house growing up,” according to another connected journalist who covers Apple.
Another cornerstone tactic of Apple PR was playing publications against each other, according to Brian Lam, founder of The Wirecutter and former head of Gizmodo. When print magazines dominated, Jobs could get either Newsweek or TIME to promote Apple on the front cover by making them compete against each other for an exclusive. Lam explained that “you can’t convince them to give you a cover, but you can convince them to take a cover from a competitor.” As technology blogs became more important, Jobs played rivals Gizmodo and Engadget against each other, publicly complimenting the freewheeling Gizmodo‘s work in front of the more serious Engadget‘s then-editor Ryan Block. Says Lam, “this didn’t come from a position of weakness or manipulation, it was a power game.” Jockeying for more favorable coverage was “not any different from how Apple would strike their media deals or their supply chain deals to get the best prices.”
But this strategy did not always work. A person briefed on the situation recalls that upon Lam receiving an iPhone 3GS review unit in 2009, a top Apple executive told the former Gizmodo editor that “we’re giving you a phone before Walt Mossberg.” Since Mossberg was known to be a close friend of Steve Jobs, some people would have taken this as a major compliment. But Lam is said to have felt that Apple “didn’t understand the pride of a reporter,” and started pushing away from Apple.
Nonetheless, the strategies weren’t taken personally by Lam, nor by some of the other journalists we spoke with. The media “is just part of their plan,” said Lam. “They think big, not always about the people, it’s business.”
As another journalist who covers Apple put it, “when they want you, they come to you, but when they don’t want to answer a question or it doesn’t suit their needs, you’re lucky to get a call back at all.” A former member of Apple’s PR team acknowledged the imbalance in the relationship between Apple PR and journalists, which was not necessarily reciprocal – rather, it was one-sided in favor of Apple, with fewer real benefits to the journalist. Another former Apple employee said, “It’s not about you, it’s about the company and it’s about the product.”
Apple’s PR team isn’t above quietly spreading negative press about competitors. For instance, when a publication “has written something negative about Android, [Apple PR] would send those stories around,” telling writers something like “that’s how we feel.” As just one example, Apple PR sent this email to two 9to5Mac reporters earlier this week, attempting to underscore an Android app’s failures.
While Apple’s PR strategies seem particularly manipulative, other technology companies try similar tactics. One reporter who covers a number of technology companies opined that “the huge difference is that people love Apple, and Apple PR knows it.” With that in mind, Apple “understands that they’re giving [journalists] a favor,” says Lam. “Apple knows it has something other journalists want,” another reporter says, “the plays are the same [as other companies’] but the motivations are different.”
“Where they are perceived as ruthless is that they know it and take super advantage of it,” the writer added. The bloggers who helped Apple PR shoot down the aforementioned Reuters accessibility story ostensibly did so as individuals, but their efforts had been quickly coordinated by the company for a specific purpose. Said a journalist, “any other company would provide the ammunition to do what you need to do; the difference is that Apple has a war machine that is ready to strike at any time.” And every effective war machine needs a leader.