Apple Needs to Fix PR Messaging

November 13th, 2013

It’s generally assumed that Apple’s PR machine is top-notch, always on point, seldom making missteps. Executives are rarely made available for interviews outside of a media event, and, even then, responses are almost always carefully rehearsed. When you hear Tim Cook on an interview show, you can almost hear the wheels clicking inside his head as he regurgitates carefully calculated and rehearsed talking points. You ask him a tough question, he is smart enough to revert to his planned spiel. Too bad the members of the media “honored” to speak with Cook ask softball questions.

Even when other executives are made available to selected members of the press, you know that there will be little that’s unexpected. They are skilled not just at doing their jobs, but at adhering to Apple’s message. This is very much part of the DNA Steve Jobs embedded into the company.

Yes, Apple is good at selling product, but maybe not so good at dealing with problems in the public arena. Take the infamous AntennaGate episode in 2010, involving the iPhone 4 and its unique antenna design. When some people complained about lost reception if you held it a certain way, Steve Jobs said, “hold it differently.” That’s not the sort of offhand sarcastic comment that conveys the feeling that Apple cares. At the time, some members of the media suggested that Apple made a design decision that failed to take into account end-user issues.

To make matters worse, Apple PR’s first official foray into dealing with this mess was to announce the release of a carrier update that presented cellular signal strength more accurately. It didn’t prevent signal loss, but the visual effect wasn’t quite as severe. So nothing changed, until Jobs realized he had to call a press event to explain the company’s design process. It wasn’t Apple’s fault, he said, but the laws of physics. Other smartphones also had problems if you held them in certain ways, and for a time Apple posted videos of direct competitors suffering from similar effects. Indeed, when independent testers looked at Apple’s claims, they were found to be correct.

Except for Consumer Reports, which decided not to recommend the iPhone 4, even though the signal loss phenomenon disappeared with a case, and even though other phones had the same problems to a greater or lesser degree. CR evidently didn’t test that gear in a way that caused the problems to appear, and the publication never bothered to correct the mistake.

With the release of an industry-standard video editing app, Final Cut Pro X, Apple touted the new technology and the, supposedly, more efficient ways to edit video. But the new code base and interface brought with it the loss of key features that video editors required for their work. After an outcry, during which some FCP users elected to use Adobe Premiere or Avid, to name the most popular competitors, Apple explained that the new features would mostly return in a new and better form, so be patient. Although the previous version, Final Cut Pro 7, was discontinued, Apple began to sell it again for a time for those who absolutely refused to buy the upgrade, despite the much lower price.

Did Apple learn a lesson?

You might have thought so when Tim Cook apologized for the serious flaws in Maps for iOS 6. Apple seemed just too desperate to reduce reliance on Google technology, but the app wasn’t ready. Had Apple labeled it a beta, and invited people to send their bug reports, it may not have been a big deal. Still Cook promised improvements — and there have been many — and assured iPhone and iPad users they could just download competing apps, including Google Maps.

These days, it has been reported that most iOS users rely on Apple Maps, and Google has lost a lot of market share. Most of the more serious problems also appear to have been dealt with, although people still remember a buggy app, and it will take a while to change perceptions, at least for those who care about the ins and outs.

You would have expected Apple would have realized the downsides to releasing a new version of the consumer-level office suite, iWork, without a number of key features that power users required. Apple merely presented the cool stuff during the recent media event, but didn’t bother to explain why some features had to be removed when the code base was revised.

Perhaps Apple was up against a deadline, and the features weren’t ready. No matter. In a support document, it was promised that at least 18 key features for iWork would be restored in the next six months, and there would be ongoing updates. That implies that pretty much all of the lost features will return, perhaps in a new guise. Just as important, the iOS and OS X versions share the same file format, as does the iCloud version, which means you can work on a document on all three platforms and be assured that things won’t suddenly change.

But Apple’s explanation didn’t come in a press release. That support document just happened to be discovered by members of the tech media who check for things of that sort. Apple realized the word would get out, but had they been a little more forthcoming on Day One, there would have been a lot less criticism, and folks who took the one-way street to update documents to the new format wouldn’t have bothered.

Yes, Apple PR is powerful and disciplined. But they’ve got to do a whole let better in dealing with the bad news.

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2 Responses to “Apple Needs to Fix PR Messaging”

  1. John Dingler, artist says:

    Meeting with Icahn even once makes Tim Cook look badly and, multiple times, even worse. Why? because the meeting spotlights that slimy money gets way with talking big, its importuning gets an immediate hearing, and it gets access to a CEO, two privileges that a normal investor would never get. This is the disparity. And Jobs would never allow himself to get slimed.

  2. Javaholic says:

    Yes, Apple have always been very good at controlling the PR message but they’re a little lousy at communication when things turn pear shaped. I think they need to do better. It’s not particularly elating when you download what appears to be an exciting upgrade only to discover half the package. Mentioning this during the keynote might be helpful for customers, particularly if it’s a workflow situation. It’s great they’re on this quest to rebuild some key software for the future, however I’d prefer to wait until they got 90% of what they’re planning I the in the bag rather than 50%.

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