Has Apple Lost Its Magic?

In its business and its PR, Apple has had a golden touch. For a decade sales have climbed along with profits, and its reputation for innovation has flourished. Until recently, that is.

iPhone sales started slowing several years ago, but no one seemed to mind or even notice much because prices kept going up. The profits were still rolling in.

But 2019 has been a rough year so far for the world’s most valuable brand. In January it slashed its earnings forecast, erasing $446 billion in shareholder value.

In consumer technology, it’s the norm for sales to slow and profits to erode over time. In fact, 10 years is an amazing run in a category where change is rapid and commoditization pretty much inevitable. The antidote to the latter, of course, is innovation. It’s the lifeblood of all tech companies, and Apple has mastered it as well as any. When it lacked a truly innovative product, it made up for it with a truly innovative user experience.

That’s why it was a shock last week when Apple pulled the plug (no pun intended) on its highly anticipated AirPower wireless charging pad. Air Power was meant to charge the iPhone, Air Pods and the Apple Watch all at once, without the ugly nest of wires and charging cables. The statement from Dan Riccio, Apple’s senior vice president of Hardware Engineering, was succinct.

“After much effort, we’ve concluded AirPower will not achieve our high standards and we have cancelled the project. We apologize to those customers who were looking forward to this launch. We continue to believe that the future is wireless and are committed to push the wireless experience forward.”

Apple-watchers noted that the decision was apparently sudden, because retail packaging for the second-generation AirPods feature an AirPower image. It’s almost unthinkable that the company would pull it. The charging pad was originally announced in September 2017 and scheduled for sale last year. And though it’s hardly as crucial as an iPhone or other flagship product, it’s a rare stumble and a disturbing sign that the luster is wearing off.

To compound matters, Apple started 2019 with another type of stumble – in data privacy. Privacy is an area where it has worked hard to build a reputation as a consumer champion while Facebook suffers one scandal after another over its handling of user data. At a privacy conference last year CEO Tim Cook called for an end to the technology industry’s collection and sale of user data, using a policy proposal to differentiate Apple at a time when Silicon Valley is under regulatory and public pressure. (Never mind that Apple was forced to shut down its FaceTime server due to an application bug that let callers to listen in on people with certain iOS devices. Luckily for Apple, everyone was distracted by the Facebook privacy scandal du jour, so it was a one-day story.)

Apple has never much cared about being first, only about being the best. Its genius is to command user loyalty by out-engineering and out-designing the competition, and by offering something we didn’t even know we needed. So, a delay isn’t a big deal, but a retreat is a different story. Apple may see its future as digital entertainment, but, let’s face it, it isn’t yet equipped to battle it out with Netflix and Amazon. Its brand and business identity for the foreseeable future is in elegant, innovative products and big ideas that anticipate or even shape how we use the internet.

Yet as embarrassing as it is, scrapping the AirPower was the right choice, presuming serious quality issues. If Tim Cook had given in to pressure to move ahead with the introduction, Apple would have risked introducing a less-than-stellar product, and that could damage its reputation far more than an aborted launch.

In the words of one tech blog, “it’s a rare case where their ambitions publicly exceed their otherwise impressive engineering capabilities.” But the stakes are now high, and the coming months will be a business and communications test for Apple. Will it be seen as an innovator, or simply a maker of pricey iPhones?

Apple’s PR Showdown

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.

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.

Is "Apologize" A Dirty Word?

This election season has given rise to a new term of shame. It’s “apologize.” GOP nominee Mitt Romney never tires of criticizing President Obama for what he claims is the president’s constant “apologizing” for America. What bothers me as a professional communicator isn’t just that no one in the Romney camp can seem to point to the apology in question. It’s also the implied equivalence. Romney equates apologizing with moral failure, a craven lack of patriotism, and weakness. And to be fair, so do many of his Democratic rivals.

But a well executed public apology is not just a communication strategy for repairing reputation damage. At its best, it conveys responsibility and leadership. Tim Cook’s recent mea culpa is evidence of that. Despite the runaway success of the iPhone 5, Apple was harshly criticized by users who found themselves running around in circles due to the phone’s flawed map application. So, Cook took the direct route in facing customer frustration. He got to the point, didn’t mince words, and even recommended that disappointed Maps users turn to competitive apps and tools until Apple can get it right.

His response had all the classic ingredients of a true apology: he took responsibility, pledged to fix the problem, and offered, if not restitution, at least, alternatives. Most importantly, his restatement of Apple’s mission “to make world-class products that deliver the best experience possible to our customers,” and emphasis on the gap between expectations and user experience in this case actually reminds us of just how high are expectations of Apple are…and how often they are met.

And for many Apple fans, the mea culpa moment may have been the first time when many thought that Cook handled the situation more skillfully than his former boss, Steve Jobs. Though Jobs often said it’s best to ‘fess up to mistakes (“It is best to admit them quickly and get on with improving your other innovations”), he was famously defensive. With his humble but sincere-sounding statement, Cook actually did Jobs one better.

If only Washington and those who aspire to serve there could do half as well.

What Steve Jobs Knew About PR

In the wake of Steve Jobs’ passing, pundits and Apple-watchers are trying to outdo one another to describe his talent, vision, and impact. But if you look at Jobs as the presumed architect of Apple’s ongoing public relations strategy, he was a disaster. At least, he should have been.

After all, in the digital age, good customer and stakeholder relations depend on transparency and openness. Jobs, by contrast, was famously private. Apple’s PR machine was accused on more than one occasion of lying, or certainly of hiding the truth. Antennagate? Deny. Product news leaks? Obfuscate. CEO health issues? Say as little as possible.

Jobs could also be visibly defensive or angry when criticized, rather than following PR principles of acknowledgement and apology. (Remember the awkward iPhone 4 press conference?)

Could any other brand have gotten away with such practices?

And yet. If Jobs broke every rule for good corporate communications with his secrecy and media-unfriendly character, he made up for it on the marketing side. He was a charismatic advocate for his own ideas and vision, even internally – hence, the famous “reality distortion field” stories. And he was indisputably a master of using the media to create excitement around new products.

Jobs gave few interviews. When he did, they were designed to support a new product, and to engage users more deeply with the Apple brand. He used his charisma and media access more skillfully than the legendary Hollywood agents of old.

Though he was famously rude to reporters who didn’t measure up to his exacting standards, he was a relentless pitcher of his own ideas. Chris Taylor’s Mashable post is my favorite reminiscence in that vein.

Like the most talented special event marketers, Jobs understood theatrics. He knew how to set the scene and tell a story. As he said, people don’t necessarily know what they want until you show it to them. And he did that…in a big way.

Most importantly, he was exciting. Not an easy interview, exactly, but always passionate, colorful, and focused. Good copy.

Jobs was a legendary marketer and one of the most effective PR advocates who ever lived, not just of his own products, but of the power of technology to change our lives. That was his real legacy.

Why Do PR People Lie?

The latest PR war between tech blog Boy Genius Report and Apple has ignited some pretty harsh accusations, including charges that Apple’s PR is lying about emails BGR claims were sent by Steve Jobs. For me, the outcome of the drama isn’t important, except as it affects the reputation of those of us who earn a living doing public relations.

Among all the things we’ve been called, the most stinging may be that PR people are professional liars. There’s that ten-year-old PR Week survey in which 25% of PR pros admitted to lying on the job. Ugh – and those are the liars who’re telling the truth! The Boy Genius flap reminded me of Newsweek reporter (and fake Steve Jobs blogger) Dan Lyons’ charges that Yahoo’s PR team were “lying sacks of s–t” for misinforming him about CEO Jerry Yang’s plans to step down. More recently, there was Erick Schonfeld’s evisceration of AOL’s communications chief for denying a rumor about an executive departure that was later proven true.

So, do PR people really need to lie to hang onto their jobs? True, sometimes a corporate spokesperson has to hide behind a technicality, or split hairs to avoid premature disclosure of material news. But, an outright fabrication?  It doesn’t make sense. Why lie when you can usually fail to return calls or emails?  Where’s the sense in making a public statement that’s proven untrue mere days later?

There’s another explanation, of course. When there’s a major development afoot, the PR person is sometimes the last to know. I’d argue that in many of the high-profile disputes about truth in public relations, the communications officers in question weren’t lying, at least not consciously. They actually didn’t know what was going on, because they weren’t told.

I believe it because I’ve been there. Even at large companies with plenty of PR savvy, the communications staff is sometimes the last to know. An agency relationship is more removed, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve read important client news in the press, only to be told by the client that they got the news at the last minute….or not at all. We joke about it, but it’s not a laughing matter.

Is it that we can’t handle the truth? Is the PR team thought of as the clean-up crew, helping with damage control after the fact? Are we viewed as too cozy with the press to be trusted? A somewhat kinder explanation is that keeping PR in the dark offers deniability later. In any case, it’s a credibility-killer. And, it’s a sorry situation when your best defense is that you’re out of the loop.

The Boy Genius-Apple dispute might be semantics. But, in many cases, the “liar” label is a symptom of a more frequent and therefore more disturbing issue –  that senior PR officers don’t always have the confidence of top management when the big news is breaking. Which leads to the frustrating, Catch-22 question. How does PR offer quality counsel and effectively manage public and stakeholder communications if we’re in the dark? Yet, how do we gain that “seat at the table” without the credibility that honest counsel inspires?

When Brands Try To Be Cool (Part 2)

Brands trying to be cool is an obsession of mine, and I’ve noticed how they seem to come in clusters. The latest rash of high-stakes rebrandings is in cable and Internet services. In February, Comcast renamed its TV, Internet and phone services as Xfinity. The PR picture wasn’t pretty. Bloggers and branding experts pounced on the name as suggestive of porn, and it’s already landed on several worst name-change lists. I don’t have a problem with the X-factor, except that it means zip. Rebrandings need to come with a rationale, and there’s no real story or substance behind this one.

Though AOL’s declaration of independence last year as Aol. received mixed reviews, the company’s communications did a better job of making the conversion meaningful.  The presentation of the new brand against various images, like the green squiggly, was fresh and interesting. I saw the typeface and “full-stop” dot as a metaphor for the break with the past. Never mind that critics immediately dubbed the new look “LOL.”

But, the toughest branding and PR assignment might be the massive campaign announced this week by AT&T. It’s not a name change, but an attempt to reposition it as a “lifestyle brand.” Reports say the AT&T logo will appear without the company name, in what seems to be swoosh-like aspirational thinking, if not outright grandiosity. The new tagline is “Rethink possible.” Hmmm. Could they have taken a bite out of partner Apple’s iconic “Think different” campaign?

Maybe they’re just polishing Steve Jobs’ ego, but I think Apple envy seeds inspiration among most marketers, particularly those who utter the word “lifestyle.” But, in this case, it plays out as a defensive move. AT&T reportedly wants to elevate its image after the uninspired and unpopular Luke Wilson campaign aimed at archrival Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon Wireless is a client of my agency. So, don’t take my word for it. Read about it from an objective source here.)

Okay, I’m biased, but something tells me I’ve seen this movie. All service companies have their issues, especially in the cutthroat telecom and wireless categories. But, AT&T has more baggage then most. It’s the brand we love to hate, and its record of innovation falls pretty short of Apple’s fertile history. Without a legitimate story to tell, a brand campaign is just that…a campaign. Unless its network capacity issues are fixed and it reinvents itself as a true innovator, even the most brilliant marketing can’t help AT&T think its way out of this one.

Does Apple Have A “Female Problem”?

No other company could have raised the anticipation bar as high and managed the PR tsunami as deftly as Apple did in the months leading up to the unveiling of the new iPad tablet.

But contrary to the stratospheric expectations, the iPad didn’t self-levitate, dispense cash, or heal the sick. Apple-watchers had their criticisms. Many called it nothing more than a “giant iPod Touch.” Personally, I was a little glad to read mixed reviews, given charges by some that major media – who might have much to gain by the iPad’s success – are incapable of covering it objectively.

Still, there’s no fan base as evangelical as Apple’s. Some began posting “I want it!” minutes after the most live-blogged product unveiling in history got underway. (Personally, I don’t agree with many of the objections. My disappointment was that AT&T is the sole data service provider. Not good.)

But, the masters of technology, design, and marketing may have stumbled a bit with the branding of the iPad. The most unexpectedly entertaining part of the announcement was the response to the name. While my first thought when I heard it was the potential for confusion with “iPod”  (particularly for Bostonians), to many people it connoted a kind of high-tech feminine hygiene product.

As Twitter users and message-board commenters piled on in the minutes and hours after the announcement, the one-liners were, um, flowing. Within moments, “iTampon” was a Twitter trending topic. By day’s end, bloggers posted an oddly prescient 2007 skit from Mad TV in which two female office mates share a confidential chat about a feminine protection product called – yep, the iPad. Blogs like adrants began to post the best jokes about the iPad branding.

So, does the iPad naming show that Apple has a…”female problem”? Many women bloggers questioned the decision, and some claim it shows a dearth of estrogen in Cupertino, at least where the marketing and branding decisions are made. “Do any women work at Apple?” was the theme of most posts.

Maybe it’s that the technology industry – with its CES booth babes and Silicon Valley geekpreneurs – is still a male-dominated one, both in numbers and in character. The typical early adopter is a man, and the way tech products are sold at retail reminds some women of the automotive industry. The tech-toy race is a stereotypically male preoccupation, and, despite women’s appreciation for technology, our default mindset is more practical than status-conscious.

Personally, though I might have favored “iTab” for a name, I think the period humor is way overblown. After all, the iPad comforms to the Apple product  nomenclature. And the word “pad” is used in scores of ways, including “notepad,” “mouse pad,” and “touch pad.”

The naming critics will lighten up, and the iPad will succeed or fail on its own merits. But, the iPad example shows that being gender-blind isn’t always a good thing. And, I’m willing to bet that, for the next big product branding, there’ll be plenty of women in the room.

CES Gets Its Mojo Back

To me, the international PR and gadget-fest that is the Consumer Electronics Show has always been an adrenaline-charged kick-off for the new year. For starters, it’s in Las Vegas, where everyone’s welcome, and anything – and I do mean anything – goes. Both the show and the town are an orgy of imagination and commerce, and both are over the top.

Yet, last year’s CES was the lowest-wattage one in recent memory. The 2009 show came on the heels of the economic meltdown, and last January, Vegas was a subdued, almost gloomy place. It was actually easy to hail a taxi…and to get a dinner reservation. That may sound like a good thing, but, trust me, it’s not.

Well, I’m happy to say that CES is back. The attendance numbers might still be depressed, but the mood is pretty upbeat. That could be because the e-reader craze has attracted a whole new industry to the show. Then again, it might be the slightly surreal presence of pop icon Lady Gaga, who’s here today as Polaroid’s new Creative Director. (More on that later…) Or, maybe it’s just because we’re all so damn grateful that 2009 is over.

One aspect that’s bigger than ever is the show’s power as a PR platform. It’s not by chance that Google launched its Nexus One smartphone earlier this week, even though it was in Mountain Valley, not here. And, Apple seems to have timed another “controlled leak” about its much-anticipated tablet for CES week. Here on the floor, CES 2010 is already pulsating with news around 3D  TV, VUDU apps, solar-powered cell phonesKindle-killers, new four-color LED TV technology (debuted by my client Sharp), and mobile everything.

But, what feels different this time is the buzz outside the Vegas bubble. It’s always attracted high-decibel media attention, but this year the news is flying at what feels like 4G speed. The day before the show opens is a press day, which means back-to-back media briefings that generate bursts of coverage and help drive crowds to the exhibit floor over the next several days.

We’re accustomed to having our client’s news posted before the room has emptied. But, this year’s flood of tweets, live-blogging, and micro-posts was unprecedented. Not only did Sharp’s new LED TVs get a flurry of pre-promotion, but there were instant updates about every detail of the set-up, powerpoint slides, even one speaker’s sudden scratchy throat.

Social media has definitely added some extra fizz to an already exciting CES and maybe even changed how it’s experienced by those of us here. What happens in Vegas just doesn’t stay in Vegas anymore. It’s everywhere.