From Seeing Through the Illusion: Understanding Apple’s Mastery of the Media, a profile examining Apple’s PR strategy:
The number of major controversies in Apple’s recent history could be counted on a single hand, but because of the company’s size and history of PR dominance, each one has attracted global attention. Most Apple-watchers agree that the company’s largest debacle was the iPhone 4’s faulty antenna. Steve Jobs took an extended period of time before holding a press conference, simultaneously spinning the reports as overblown, and debuting a free case program. Before that Friday press conference in the summer of 2010, the iPhone 4’s negative press had spun out of control, resulting in viral YouTube videos and class action lawsuits. Although Apple downplayed the controversy publicly, it fired and quietly blamed a senior engineering executive for the issue, redesigning and then doing away with the antenna design in subsequent iPhones. Tim Cook hasn’t been perfect, but he has tended to respond quickly to controversies, suggesting that he is willing to handle controversies before they turn into crises.
Asked to describe the iOS Maps debacle, a member of Apple PR told us that “it was certainly tough,” as “a lot of people were upset that Scott [Forstall] was not taking responsibility for his product.” The employee went on to say that that it felt internally like Forstall “was skirting the responsibility” and that it was becoming a “waiting game,” an “icky” situation. Cook did not wait too long to circumvent Forstall, however. Just a few days into iOS 6’s public launch, Cook “displayed real leadership” and “started to take Apple and make it the best company it could be both internally and externally.”
Cook wrote a Maps apology letter and decided to terminate Forstall, promoting executives such as Jony Ive, Eddy Cue, and Craig Federighi to take on Forstall’s responsibilities. “Tim played a huge personal role in writing the letter alongside the PR and Product Marketing teams,” according to the Apple employee.
After witnessing the iPhone 4 Antennagate situation, Cook knew that he had to do better than his predecessor at handling a real problem. Instead of simply watching as executives passed blame around a board room table, Cook took control of the situation and promised a solution. Whatever you may think of the decision, it was a giant moment in Apple leadership, given Forstall’s prior importance to the company; the detail-obsessed executive had been called Apple’s CEO in waiting. While Apple’s Maps team is still clouded by internal politics and incomplete features, Apple is clearly pushing forward and attempting to resolve the many problems with its Maps app. Since the apology was issued, Maps has expanded to OS X and been redesigned on iOS, but it has also gained distractions like Flyover Tours.
Apple’s acquisition of Beats Electronics and Beats Music was not so much an issue of negative PR, but it demonstrates one of the current problems with Apple’s internal culture. When news broke of Apple being in late talks to acquire Beats on a Thursday afternoon, Apple PR had a difficult time responding to the situation because the team had no inside knowledge as to whether the claims were accurate, Apple employees told us. The company’s need-to-know culture restricts information to individuals who must know about an upcoming product, service, or announcement. In the case of the Beats leak, Apple PR could not act on the situation because they had no information beyond what had been published in media reports.
Normally, when a product leak occurs, Apple PR’s top brass typically meets with Product Managers from the respective groups to gauge how accurate the leak is. The PR team then meets to decide how to comment on the record, off the record, or when to say nothing at all. Leaks also offer Apple the opportunity to watch how consumers and other media outlets respond to particular upcoming products, and if there is time for the engineering and marketing teams to make changes, the groups now know which direction to move the products. Sometimes the leaks come from Apple itself; other times, they do not. But when an inadvertent leak is corporate- rather than product-related, the PR team’s only option is to climb high up the totem pole for assistance.
Another low-point for Apple in recent years was the debut of former Wall Street Journal reporter Yukari Iwatani Kane’s book titled Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs. The book took a grim approach to detailing Apple under the leadership of Tim Cook, saying that the company’s best days are behind it, as Steve Jobs is no longer at the helm.
In a twist from the usual process, Apple PR did not respond to the book’s assertions via spokespeople; instead, Tim Cook and other Apple executives did so themselves. As a member of Apple’s PR team said, Apple’s executives were “personally affected” by the narrative and Cook “made the call” to respond himself. In an email sent to CNBC, Cook said:
“This nonsense belongs with some of the other books I’ve read about Apple. It fails to capture Apple, Steve, or anyone else in the company. Apple has over 85,000 employees that come to work each day to do their best work, to create the world’s best products, to put their mark in the universe and leave it better than they found it. This has been the heart of Apple from day one and will remain at the heart for decades to come. I am very confident about our future. We’ve always had many doubters in our history. They only make us stronger.”
In smaller jabs, Phil Schiller took to Twitter to dispute a comment from the book about his taste in cars, and Senior Vice President of Internet Software and Services Eddy Cue shot down a claim that Jobs had tossed a pen at Cue’s face. While Schiller and Cue disputing minor facts within the larger story may seem trivial, Apple executives rarely if ever personally respond to books and media reports publicly. The commentary from Cook, Cue, and Schiller represents Apple executives personally taking full control of the PR situation and not leaving it up to the PR team. Apple employees recall feeling that this was a very “Steve” move on Cook’s part.
Negative reviews of Haunted Empire quickly piled up on Apple-focused web sites. Whether Apple PR helped to coordinate some of those reviews remains a minor mystery.