It’s been a tough few months for Apple’s PR team. After it reported a slowing of its normally torrid sales growth, market-watchers and media speculated that Apple was showing signs of weakness. As investors turned bearish, Google parent company Alphabet surpassed Apple in market capitalization – a psychological milestone.
Apple, usually in the driver’s seat when it comes to media relations, turned a tad defensive. Earlier this month The Wall St. Journal reported that Apple’s internal communications team uncharacteristically sent reporters “favorable third-party reports about the company,” including five studies since the start of the year.
Was Apple’s famous PR dominance slipping? Changing strategy? Maybe. But then, this week brought the FBI request for its cooperation in unlocking the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists, and the company’s handling of the matter marked a recharged Apple PR machine.
After the FBI asked it to build a workaround to bypass the phone’s encryption, Apple simply said no. But it did so in a way that invited support from data security experts and tech influencers and positioned the company as protecting the privacy of all iPhone users.
The security issue here is highly fraught. Apple is open to harsh criticism no matter what it does. As the the FT points out, the struggle has reminded us that the encryption techniques tech companies brag about are not as unassailable as they’d have us think. And data privacy is a double-edged issue for technology companies because they benefit from ever-more-granular user behavior information for targeting ads. The whole thing is such a third rail that you might think Apple would do its best to keep it out of the press.
But for whatever reason – pure principle, fear that the government would take the PR offensive, or a desire to own the privacy issue because it will surely persist – Apple went on the offensive. It posted a letter from Tim Cook that outlined its position in careful but principled language, framing the FBI ask as a “chilling” and precedent-setting demand with far-reaching and dangerous implications.
Within hours, the letter (which was never even tweeted by Apple), generated over 250,000 tweets, and the overwhelming majority were strongly supportive. No matter where you stand on the security issue, Apple’s handling of the matter showed a carefully orchestrated communications strategy.
Some expressed cynicism about Apple’s motives for taking a stand. Others, including every one of the GOP candidates for president, say they’re outraged. There are defensible arguments on both sides and they’ve only just begun.
But by first outlining the situation to its advantage and calling for a public discussion of the long-term implications for data security and privacy, Apple has shrewdly seized the PR advantage. At least for now.