Does Apple Need an Information Czar?

September 4th, 2008

Once, a long time ago, and I don’t know where I wrote this suggestion, I envisioned a new line of Apple commercials featuring Steve Jobs. Since he’s such a master salesman, you’d think he’d do well in that setting.

He wouldn’t be the first corporate executive to become the star of an ad campaign either. Years ago, it was widely suggested that then-CEO Lee Iacocca of Chrysler proved to be such a credible pitchman, he may have even saved the company. Well, at least then. His attempted encore years later wasn’t nearly as successful, but that’s also true for many movie sequels.

These days, company leaders even appear on TV to sell such commodity products as baked beans, but in Apple’s case, they opted for two comic actors to portray the Mac and the PC, and that’s surely gained lots and lots of attention, and probably lots of sales.

In retrospect, maybe it was a good idea for Steve Jobs not to become fodder for commercial skipping with your TiVO. Besides, what did someone once say about overexposure? You can easily fire the actors who appear in a commercial, but the CEO represents a far more difficult issue.

Microsoft’s response to Apple’s campaign is to have former CEO Bill Gates take the Iacocca route, with comedian Jerry Seinfeld playing some role or other. Unfortunately the first ad, in a shoe store setting, doesn’t make much if anything terribly clear.

I needn’t dwell on the fact that Seinfeld’s hit TV series has been off the air for years, but with a big payday, the star of a show about nothing will apparently now appear in a series of TV ads with a similar intent.

But what about public information? Right now, any one of several possible corporate communications people will handle the chore, depending on which Apple department needs to respond to a particular question. There is no single person to go to, alas, and quite often, the questions are simply never answered, even when there are issues that might negatively impact customers.

More recently, Steve Jobs has taken on the role of writing terse one-liners to Apple customers who complain about something or other. That, and a certain company memo about the MobileMe launch fiasco, were quickly disclosed to the press, who took it from there. Well, if that was Apple’s intention all along, I suppose it succeeded, though it seems rather a backwards way of giving out critical information to customers.

Now some companies put one public relations specialist in charge of handling inquiries, usually someone reasonably charismatic, so they look good on TV. Certainly the White House has a press secretary to handle those chores, providing regular press briefings, but some of those people haven’t exactly emerged as TV stars. And don’t get me started on the quality and the extent of the information these people provide either. They still have to follow the guidelines — and usually direct instructions — from their employers.

Despite the potential downsides, it’s clear to me that Apple is large enough to consider the same sort of setup. I wouldn’t presume to suggest whether one of the existing members of their corporate communications team could serve this function. They might even have to go outside the company to find someone with the appropriate photogenic looks and penchant for sharp repartee.

In an ideal world, Steve Jobs himself might be ideal to do the job, but he can also be contentious with the press when he’s asked an uncomfortable question. That might suit for a special press briefing, but not on a regular basis. Besides, Jobs has better things to do, and, being endlessly suspicious of the press anyway, he wouldn’t be the ideal person to serve extended duty for such a task.

Anyway, he has more important things to do, such as running the company and building the products that, sometimes, people find reason to complain about.

So why would Apple need to consider an official information czar? Well, for one thing, their public relations performance has grown worse and worse over the past year. They have made some foolish moves that have resulted in bad press, or even a forced mea culpa from the CEO.

Last year, for example, when Apple cut $200 from the price of the iPhone, Jobs made an off-handed crack about the price you pay to be an early adopter of new technology. That remark didn’t go over too well, and, after being inundated with complaints, Jobs himself wrote a blog entry offering $100 rebates.

The MobileMe debacle was a more recent matter. For a few days, you heard nothing at all, except for obscure prompts about extended maintenance when you tried to login to your account. Finally, someone posted a few blog-style messages, claiming to have done so at Jobs’ behest. Except that a promised follow up never actually appeared. It wasn’t long before Apple put iTunes chief Eddie Cue in charge of cleaning up the mess before things got way out of hand.

Well, the 90-day membership extension was surely welcome. I have no complaints about that. For the most part, I’m a satisfied Apple customer of long standing. However, as the company continues to top the charts as the “it” tech company of the 21st century, they risk losing an awful lot of hard-won prestige if the issue of proper public communication continues to elude them.

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