Industry rivals provide rare insight into Apple PR strategy

Special Current.com.au Feature by Patrick Avenell

Hi Patrick,

Thanks for your mail to [Apple Australia PR representative] Alex; however, we're unable to accommodate your request.

All the best,
David

My request was to attend the launch of the iPad Mini in San Jose on 23 October 2012.

The invites to attend this launch were sent out to Apple’s handpicked, carefully selected journalists on 17 October 2012. At that time, I was holidaying in San Diego, California, and had already planned on being in Los Angeles on the date of the launch.

Before leaving for this holiday on 14 October 2012, I had pre-arranged with my employer to attend the Apple launch, should one occur during my time in California, and if my request for a ‘walk-up’ invite be accepted. Of course, I knew it would not be.

Although Australia is a huge market for Apple, as evidenced by the first run releases of all their new products, Apple does not run its public relations like any other company. Its main rivals, such as Microsoft, Sony and Samsung (and, for that matter, its minor tech rivals), would jump at the chance to get an Australian journalist at their international launch at no expense.

But Apple is different.

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The Fading iHalo

Just as political candidates are vetted before receiving the nod to run, Apple vets journalists to make sure those at the frontline of their assault on the media are fit to receive its largesse.

One journalist that regularly attends Apple launches told me that guests are treated very well, with Business Class flights and nice hotel rooms. Cynics think this leads to positive coverage but the link is casual, not causal. Apple has for the last 10 years received voluminous and phenomenally positive coverage from both the journalists it loves and the ones it ignores.

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt was quoted saying this was because the media was “obsessed with Apple's marketing events and Apple's branding”.

There is evidence to suggest, however, that this is tsunami of positive coverage — best encapsulated by the media applause for Steve Jobs that is virtually non-existent for Tim Cook — is now ebbing. As the general manager of one leading Sydney public relations firm told me: the volume is still there but the tone is definitely changing.

“Even in articles where the coverage is positive, it’s considerably less effusive than it has been in the past,” said the source, who spoke and shared public relations data on the condition of anonymity.

“Issues such as the recent battle with Samsung and problems surrounding the mapping product are taking the shine off their halo.”

During the pre-launch and launch period for the iPhone 5, media analyst Factiva isolated 4,368 Australian news stories regarding the new handset. Just fewer than 800 of these stories, almost 18 per cent, included references to “issues” and/or “problems” with the device.

iSilence and iContrition

The biggest and most widely reported issue was the Apple Maps debacle, which lead to an unprecedented apology from Cook. Other issues included the disappearance of the native YouTube app and the constant refreshing of product lines just six months after the previous launch.

Although Apple’s financial fortunes haven’t diminished, with the company last week reporting a 24 per cent increase in quarter-on-quarter net profit to US $8.2 billion, it can no longer rely on the blindly positive mainstream media coverage that it has used to create its aura.

“There have been other brands in the past, such as Google, which have gone through similar transitions,” said our source. “However, the significant difference between those companies and Apple is that they’re better set-up to deal with any downward trend in sentiment.”

When journalists contact Apple’s Australian public relations team for comment, the response is generally a polite rejection in the form of: “Apple does not comment on…”. That sentence has become a mantra of jovial hacks passing comment on the company’s inactivity at a local level.

The reluctance to comment on a local level is part of Apple’s centralised PR strategy, in which public commentary in limited to a handful of well-trained media spokespeople, most commonly Tim Cook and senior vice president of worldwide marketing Philip Schiller. As a result of this narrow messaging strategy, the local and sizable public relations team does very little visible public relations.

“A lot of the things that have benefitted Apple’s PR activities in the past such as highly rigid launch approaches and secretive behaviour just won’t work in this kind of environment,” predicted our source.

“The key question will be whether Apple is prepared to accept that this is the ‘new normal’ and modify their behaviour, or whether they keep on the same path. The recent mea culpa around maps suggests they might be willing to change — but it would be an enormous overhaul.”

While the contrition Cook and Apple showed over Maps did indicate a new communicative approach to public relations, it was in stark contrast to Apple’s “misleading” marketing for the new iPad, which launched in Australia carrying “4G” branding despite not working on any local 4G network.

The ACCC smacked Apple down and the Federal Court agreed, imposing a $2.25 million fine. Apple paid the fine and made several undertakings to improve its practices but there was not a single word of apology or contrition in the email it sent to affected customers.

The Job iNterview

To conclude, I’m going to share an anecdote told to me by a PR executive currently running a medium-sized Sydney agency. This executive interviewed for a job working in Apple Australia’s PR department.

“It was the most bizarre job interview I’ve ever had,” this executive said. “I was asked what my perception of Apple was, and I said all the usual stuff like ‘innovative, design focused, forefront of technology’, and I was told that was completely wrong — It was all about education and learning.”

In the interview, this PR executive said, the head of Apple Australia’s corporate communications seemed to “float in and out of the room, like an angel”.

The executive did not receive an offer for the job.

Current.com.au contacted Apple Australia to comment on this story, clearly stating the subject matter and details of its contents. We did not receive a response.

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