“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.