Last night I had a wonderful opportunity to meet with a group of students from Elon University’s Ad Club (AAF). As part of my talk I shared a few simple tips and bits of advice around social media to help new graduates entering the PR/Ad/Marketing client and agency world. Grab the slides if you like, or read on for some extra commentary.
In the wake of the Consumer Reports article confirming that the iPhone 4′s “death grip” reception issues are 1) real and 2) a hardware and not software issue (as Apple claimed), it seems the issue is quickly escalating from a moderate annoyance into a full blown PR crisis for the iconic brand.
A brand known, among other things, for an approach to PR that’s both dramatic and heavy handed, making this into one PR story guaranteed to have some legs.
First Apple denied the issue, then they effectively blamed the users, then they released a software patch, and now, in the face of growing evidence that it is in fact a real problem with the phone…they have started deleting support forum threads that discuss the issue (have they heard of the Streisand Effect or web caching perhaps?).
With comparisons to Toyota and inevitable calls for recall going out, it’s starting to look like this is spinning well beyond Apple’s control. At some point, the hardware problem, which may affect only a tiny sliver of users in most day to day scenarios, will take on a life of its own, lawsuits will be filed, and Time Magazine will print a cover asking “Has Apple lost it’s way?”
I think we’re already at the point where Apple will have to make some dramatic gesture (likely a recall) just to calm people down and limit the damage. The big question is what and when, and also when they will get their act together and stop trying to just make it all go away.
UPDATE: The storm keeps brewing. Already Apple’s stock price takes a hit and TechCrunch is calling this #AntennaGate, and the class actions have begun.
*Disclaimers: I used many Apple products and even just ordered an iPhone 4 (which I’m still looking forward to), and count Apple rivals among my clients and former employers.
Let’s be clear – doing public relations for a large company is tough, especially one that’s under constant and intense media scrutiny at all times. For a couple of years I was part of the PR team that covered MSN and Windows Live at Microsoft, where I got to witness first hand just how insane and stressful the day to day rumor-squashing, crisis-handling, exec-coping chaos of that kind of job can be. As a result I have nothing but respect for the people I worked with who were on the PR front lines day in and day out – it’s more often than not a thankless job with an even worse public perception of it.
Which is why I have to give some serious sympathy to the corporate PR team at Apple. Their job goes beyond the normal insanity and into some bizarro land where the normal rules don’t apply. How so?
- They operate behind a massive, nearly totalitarian wall of secrecy and silence where product leakers seem to be persecuted mercilessly, and where, in fact, almost no one other than the CEO officially speaks.
- They eschew all social media (because frankly, they just don’t *need* it given their unique brand, products, and loyal fans) and constantly send the legal hounds against some of their biggest fan blogs.
- YET they have a CEO who randomly engages in direct, seriously “off message” conversations with angry customers, providing endless fodder for those very same blogs which they otherwise ignore or disdain.
The latest example of that last point is from today, as described over on Gawker and Boy Genius. Here are some highlights pulled from Gawker, where the user gets a bit overly aggressive, but he does so in response to Jobs’ own overly dismissive tone:
Customer: I assume there is no fix then. If this is legit, I have lost all respect for Apple… All our co-workers with Androids are just mocking us right now… This is just sickening.
Jobs: You are getting all worked up over a few days of rumors. Calm down.
Customer: I am really insulted… What arrogance… I just had dinner with 3 people who had iPhone 4s we all cant make calls without dropping. There is no rumors it is reality.
Jobs: You are most likely in an area with very low signal strength
Customer: Stop with jackass comments. I have has every iphone made. They all had a bad signal but this is the so much worse X3.
Jobs: Stay tuned. We are working on it… Retire, relax, enjoy your family. It is just a phone. Not worth it.
“It’s just a phone.” Quite a contrast from this I think:
Yes, Jobs is right. It’s just a phone, please relax, and ignore the last several years of our marketing messaging. As Gawker notes though, this also was a missed opportunity to recognize and engage a truly passionate fan, however angry he might have been at the time. But beyond that, I can’t help but think what a total nightmare these little Jobsian email replies are for the PR team.
Yes transparency is the ideal, and direct access to an iconic CEO like Jobs has only added to the mystique that surrounds Apple. But it falls to the PR team to constantly try and clean up the messes left behind by the CEO and others when they really go off script. When the CEO’s ramblings are taken by the media and a large section of the broader market as something approaching sacred gospel, it just makes the cleanup all the more painful.
Each time one of these weird Jobs email exchanges goes public, and the collective tech blogosphere momentarily freaks out about it, I can almost hear a vast collective groan rise up from the PR (and marketing) teams down in Cupertino. Lots of sympathy (and very little envy) for them.
*Disclaimer: I use and love several Apple products, and also count Microsoft as a current client and former employer.