Exposing Apple's PR "Secrets": One PR Person's View

“Seeing Through The Illusion: Understanding Apple’s Mastery of the Media”, a blog series on 9to5mac.com, has had the tech PR community fascinated over the past week. The posts were hyped as pulling back the curtain on the PR and message control machine behind Apple’s “reality distortion field.” (The words were coined about Steve Jobs’ personal magnetism, but it’s a pretty fair description of its PR.)

Yet no one has built up the reputation of Apple’s PR dominance more than the journalists who cover the company. Even Dan Lyons, the writer behind the famous Fake Steve Jobs blog, distilled his experience with Apple Communications VP Katie Cotton into wisdom for PR people. (“Play hard to get” is one piece of advice. Please.)

The 9to5mac posts are a juicy read. There are gossipy morsels about the shredded briefing books, PR execs as bouncers and bodyguards, and some catty (and sexist) bits about Cotton’s iron-fisted reign over media relations. But with all respect to Apple’s crack PR team, the “secrets” revealed are pretty tame, at least if you work in tech PR, or in any type of high-level communications. Here are some of the most startling “revelations.”

Apple’s PR group is hyperattentive to detail

The posts dish about the meticulous planning and masterful choreography behind its product launches. Why would this be unusual? Any big brand devotes untold time and energy preparing madly for a product unveiling, and all the more so in tech, where prototypes are often used, which amps up the risk factor.  Technology is tweaked, and people work into the early morning hours to get it right. Reading about event prep gave me that feeling you get when you encounter a seriously glamorized version of a mundane or routinized aspect of your job. Entertaining, but not very useful.

Executives rehearse for days ahead of time

No surprise here. It’s hard to see what’s different from other global brands, and anyone who’s participated in events from CES to Fashion Week can attest to the level of preparation required. The world stage commanded by Apple no doubt magnified the stress, but it’s not surprising or unique.

Apple is fanatical about preventing leaks.

Well, no one likes leaks. They blunt media coverage, and they can be inaccurate. Jobs was famously secretive, so it’s no wonder that the concern for control of product presentation trickled downhill.

Apple is “obsessed with keeping its fingers on the pulse of coverage.”

9to5 compares it to a teenage girl staying on top of her peers and frenemies, and that’s an apt metaphor. But, again, many major companies use not just the latest tools, but huge amounts of staff and agency time to track and analyze every mention of its brand. It comes with the territory. Just because a company’s not returning emails or phone calls doesn’t mean it’s not monitoring every word that’s written or blogged. And, no, that’s not creepy. It’s business, and we call it media monitoring.

The media relations team offers early product access to favored press

Whoa, really? Again, this is business as usual in many corpcomm departments, and among agency PR teams. Our job is to maximize visibility for a launch or announcement, and often to try to influence the coverage to emphasize the positive. So extending favors or special access to specific media happens, and it’s certainly not limited to Apple.

Less is more

I’m jumping  here to Dan Lyons’ advice, which isn’t part of the 9to5 posts, but reflects Apple PR lore. And here, Apple may be in the minority. Witholding access bit has worked beautifully for a company that has launched iconic and widely adopted products, and whose founder was a legendary figure. But it might not play for the average startup, whose mission is simply to get on the radar with the kind of media who might influence funding and product adoption.

So, what’s the secret to the Apple mystique? Breakthrough product design that resulted in an amazing PR, or brilliant PR strategy that promoted good products? I’d say a little of both.

The Apple corporate communications modus operandi grew out of the company’s growth and success under celebrated perfectionist Jobs. There’s talk of a kinder, gentler media relations approach under Tim Cook, after all. But maybe the key lesson for professional communicators is the focus. From the start, Apple was a brand and a culture dedicated to the perfect presentation of its product and brand, down to the last detail. Anything that marred that presentation was eliminated.

And the mere fact that it’s the focus of an endless debate among PRs and journalists alike is evidence that someone’s doing something right. On the occasion of yet another Apple live event that has been buzzed about for weeks, the very conversation is significant. Maybe the PR mastery is overstated, but for whatever reason, we just can’t stop talking about Apple.

What’s In A (PR) Name? Think Wisely What To Call A Campaign

Given what it’s been through, it’s easy to understand why Malaysia Airlines would be looking for a little positive PR. Recently that took the form of what was no doubt meant as a “feel-good” campaign built around reward travel. Also understandable is the urge to jump on a word that’s trending.

So, maybe the PR team thought the “My Ultimate Bucket List Campaign” an essay contest where entrants can win a trip to a destination on their bucket list, was right up there with the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” A natural.

Not so fast. A “bucket list,” of course, is what we plan to do before dying, and given the airline’s calamitous year, the new campaign was quickly and resoundingly criticized. The airline has since apologized. (It’s also rebranding, which is probably a good idea.) There are some lessons here around witty and clever names for any PR campaign.

Timing is everything. Marketers can work for weeks or months on a campaign, but news events can give terms new meaning. That’s why a promotion that could have been clever – a show called “Sleepy Hollow” promoting its DVD with a series of “headless” memes – had to be scrapped when it launched the day of the brutal execution of an American journalist. Sometimes there’s a reluctance to quash a campaign over a sudden event that no one could have foreseen, but, in reputation terms, it’s better to cancel early than to apologize later.

Can it trend without being too trendy? As quickly as we see a hot topic rise in Google searches or on Twitter, it will fall. Don’t pin a campaign on a word that will be over before it has a chance to trend.

Make it meaningful. This should go without saying. The campaign’s name should say exactly what it aims to do without making the intended audience work too hard to “get it.” It’s not a good idea to fall in love with a meaningless moniker just because it will read great in a press release or headline.

Make it visual. How many memes, posts, videos and Instagram pix have you clicked on today? When christening a campaign, it’s best to think about how the title can be depicted visually. Sometimes, a visual is all that’s needed. Look at the recent Volkswagen ad touting its “park assist” feature, beautifully illustrated by a prickly hedgehog between plastic bags of goldfish.

Are you offending anyone? Surprisingly, it happens often.  A “Woman-proof” car campaign from the UK did its share of shackle-raising without many people even viewing it. However, for those who subscribe to the “any PR is good PR” school (Spirit Air, are you listening?)  please ignore the above, and we wish you all the best!

The Future Of PR: 5 Trends To Watch

Predictions are easy, and the PR business is no exception. We don’t yet have the flying cars that were predicted when I was in grammar school, but I’ve never stopped prognosticating. Our team has looked into the not-too-distant future to scope trends that all PR practitioners need to be aware of and embrace.

Engagement is an art, not necessarily a science

Skilled communicators can gain a great deal by understanding the sociology of peer groups and the psychology of identified audiences. We already know that it isn’t enough to talk at a consumer by broadcasting a new product message. Success is achieved through a personalized approach that takes into account intangibles like emotions, values, or lifestyle. Only then can the monologue evolve into a true dialogue.

Embrace the [media] disruption

Begin with the premise that non-traditional media/content producers like bloggers, citizen journalists and influencers need to be treated as partners. Start a relationship by approaching these third-party disruptors with no agenda other than sending facts and news. Allow them to disseminate as they see fit. Marketers don’t own your brand anymore; your customers do.

Metrics are not optional

Slowly, we’re moving toward acceptable measurement practices that will help ensure the future of our industry. PR outcomes are still not easily measured, but the days of “vanity metrics” like impressions and AVEs are dying away. Aligning the PR strategy – and the spend – with business goals is now the first step in program development.

Big Data = Smart Data

Someone once said they went into PR because they were lousy with numbers. Well, many of the most successful PR stories incorporate “numbers” – statistics, percentages, analytics, formulas- creatively packaged to make news for a client (particularly when the client is between “real” news stories.) Another plus? These stories can be told visually in very engaging ways that work with the way we consume media now and more so in the future.

Customize your next “dream team”

With specialization and niche marketing creating a greater need for PR people with diverse skill sets, “core” teams are going to need flexibility to meet the demands of introducing new and different products and services. As great as it is to have a giant pool of PR resources at your fingertips, the “smart money” is betting that we’ll be bringing in key players on a per-project basis, creating a smart strategic and financial model for sound PR servicing.

7 Common PR Storytelling Sins

Most of the stories that PR and marketing professionals tell on behalf of the brands they represent fall into one of the classic story categories. Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots, which has been adapted by major advertising creative directors like TBWA’s Rob Schwartz, outlines some of the most common. They range from the ever-powerful David vs Goliath archetype to the rags-to-riches myth and variations on the classic Hero’s Journey.

But the obstacle – and the opportunity – for many public relations professionals is that we’ve spent years with an “earned media” mindset. We’re trained to identify, shape, and pitch the story, but for a long time, we’ve relied on traditional journalists to actually tell it.  Now, with the rise of brand journalism and the soaring number of journalists entering PR and communications, we need to not only shape the stories, but tell them at a high level.

So, like the archetypal hero who sets out on a nearly impossible journey, we must rise to meet the challenge of a changing business. Here are some of the most common obstacles to great PR storytelling.

It ignores the customer. I’d argue that nearly every memorable marketing or PR story is a form of Hero’s Journey. This is a good thing, because the archetype is powerful and inclusive. The problem is, many PRs feel obligated to make the brand (read: the client) the hero of the tale. This is risky. Sometimes the customer is also the brand, as in the case of the entrepreneur who sees a gap in a market and starts a company that flourishes – and, yes, this is the point where the Hero’s Journey morphs into rags-to-riches!

That’s a perfect setup for a great story, because it’s both brand-centric and aspirational for the customer. But not every company fits that mold. When it doesn’t, communicators can look outside the company for the story arc — to employees, community, and, of course, customers.

It lacks conflict or drama. Without conflict, striving, searching, or suspense, there’s simply no compelling story to tell. Bolting on these elements doesn’t typically result in a great narrative, however; these ingredients need to feel organic to the situation. This is where the real research, in the form of interviews, history, and data analysis, comes in. Shaping a story about a beer brand that brings back a classic IPA is nice. But the tale of how the master brewer spent two years reverse-engineering a lost recipe with historical documents, extensive taste-testing, and interviews with longtime fans is a better one.

It’s boring or facile. A story can fall short not just because it lacks drama, but because it’s overly predictable or self-serving. Average Guy can’t find a decent car insurance policy for his son until he discovers Geico/Progressive/Fill-in-the-blank. Not so compelling, is it? But if the guy’s son suffers from a disability that makes learning to drive or getting insurance coverage difficult, a story is born.

It’s safe. It’s tough to get larger brands to take small risks with storytelling because it can involve admitting that not every product, strategy, or corporate culture was ideal to start. Yet the narrative will be far more relevant if it starts with a problem or need, and the company or hero customer/employee struggles to correct it, because that rings true. It’s classic storytelling.

It’s not edited. By this I don’t mean line editing, although writing quality is a common issue in professional storytelling, and excellent writing should be a given. But by editing, I refer to the sense that every fact or nuance is in the story offers valuable context or moves the narrative forward. If the brand’s history or the CEO’s background doesn’t tell the reader something new and valuable, it doesn’t belong in the narrative.

It’s overly commercial. We’ve all been there. But the good news is that brand marketers today are likely to be sophisticated about storytelling techniques and more willing to let branding take a back seat to the narrative flow, or to take risks with satire or humor. Look no further than the Old Spice campaign, and its many imitators and one-uppers.

It doesn’t grab the reader/viewer. The story doesn’t have to be super-short or boast a sensational link-bait headline, but it must reach out to the reader at the outset, pull him in, and make the journey worthwhile.