Tag Archives: Apple

How can Apple get by with breaking PR rules?

PR pundits (like me, I suppose) like to try and convince people that there are certain rules that have to be followed to be successful. One of those that I know I have tried hard to push is the importance of transparency. Let me quote myself and plenty of others about this: There are very few secrets in this internet world–look at Prince Harry in Afghanistan. Given this, if you have bad news to tell, tell it yourself rather than letting someone else tell it for you, ending up making you look like you are hiding. Hiding or covering up comes close to being the unforgivable sin of the social network world as well as mainstream media–particularly if you are covering up something that is harmful to people.

So those are kind of the rules or conventional wisdom of transparency. Burson Marsteller and Facebook are both facing pretty serious consequences for their recent issue regarding efforts to plant stories about Google’s supposed privacy problems. The real problem for both of them was trying to do things under a cloak of darkness–for obvious reasons. I doubt that those who have lost trust in them fault them for trying to manipulate negative media coverage against a competitor. Nothing new here. But to be unwilling to divulge the identity of a client behind the effort, that violates the transparency rules. And for Facebook to make accusations through this means rather than in the open light of day violates the transparency rules as well.

So, how can Apple get by for so long being probably the least transparent major company? And does the fact that they recently catapulted to the most valuable brand on the planet give a lie to the relatively recent conventional wisdom of the value of transparency?

The CEO of PRSA, Rosanna M. Fiske, takes on this difficult question in her guest editorial in Ad Age. I wouldn’t agree that Jobs’ communication style is a faux pas–I think it is who he is. And that I think is the main point. There is authenticity behind Apple’s lack of transparency. It is real because Apple has been the embodiment of Steve Jobs with all the insanely greatness about him and all the arrogance, bullying, self-assuredness that he demonstrated.

There are certainly understandable reasons why Apple cannot be as transparent as is expected of so many others. The competitive battles they are in require a pretty significant level of stealth to maintain their clear competitive edge in the rapidly changing world of personal computing devices. Look at how fast already the knock-offs show up and how hard competitors work to maintain feature parity and sometimes even make an effort to leapfrog. Secrecy is vitally important in their business and I think that those who appreciate their products and their innovation understand and respect that.

But it does go deeper because I think it is connected to the persona of Mr. Jobs. Him telling a student doing a research paper to stop bothering them is neither surprising nor necessarily damaging. It’s Steve, for goodness sake. And because the company has allowed itself (as if it had a choice) to become so closely tied to Mr. Job’s character, personality and unique capabilities, it is neither surprising nor offensive. It’s not the way other companies behave because they are not run by Steve Jobs, a person who has become an icon for innovators and great creators across all industries.

There are some important lessons here. One is the role of character in organization leadership. This was brought stronger to my attention by Peter Firestein’s outstanding book on crisis communication called “Crisis of Character.”

The other is to see how the personal voice is emerging in corporate and organization communication. Shades of Naisbitt’s Megatrends and “high tech high touch.” As our conversation gets more and more technology-dependent, conversely we need that conversation to be between us and another real life human being. If I want to talk to a vaccuum cleaner manufacturer, I don’t want some anonymous call center nobody to talk to me, I want a real person who has real human qualities and who maybe can do something. Today is the day of CEO as communicator, on a remarkably personal level.

This reality was borne out by research done by the University of Missouri about the human voice in social networking conversations. “There is great value in using a human voice when communicating and developing good relationships with the public,” Hyojung Park, a doctoral candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism, said. “Perceptions of relationships with an organization seem to be significantly more favorable when the organization’s social networking page has a human presence rather than an organizational presence. Levels of trust, commitment, and satisfaction from users all appear to be positively affected by the use of the human voice in social media.”

Apple has had a very human voice as the face and heart and soul of the company. Because we see Jobs as human, it seems easier to accept his warts and deficiencies than if what came out from him and Apple as seen as a corporate message. I do think this is why Apple’s secrecy and Job’s “faux pas” have not hurt the company despite the clear violation of the values of its core market.

Three lessons: 1. Character counts. 2. Put a human face on your organization no matter how large. 3) Authenticity counts more than transparency.


Facebook, Google, Apple and thoughts on the road

In case you haven’t noticed I haven’t been very faithful with posts here lately. That’s because my wife and I enjoyed a nearly three week road trip. We drove the country coast to coast from our home north of Seattle to Charleston and Orlando for speaking engagements, then back home again. We saw 23 states and weather ranging from snow to blistering heat to a dark, scary thunderstorm in San Antonio. We survived an fire alarm in a hotel that had us standing on the street for an hour surrounded by fire trucks and survived a scary near-accident. We drove in comfort and economy enjoying our new Lexus CT200h with its 42 mpg zippyness.

Home again and time to turn thoughts to what is going on in the world of crisis communication and PR. There is much of course. Still a lot about Bin Laden, about social media in emergencies particularly in Japan, and then there is the Facebook, Google and Burson Marsteller fiasco.

First, having met and listened to Mr. Burson give a presentation a couple of years ago I really feel for him. It would be a shame if his reputation earned by a lifetime of stellar service and modeling of public relations built on integrity would be sullied by this event. Somehow I can’t help feeling there is more to this story than what we are seeing.

Clearly the fact that they were unwilling to divulge their client is a serious ethical problem. It’s hard for me to understand how two apparently savvy professionals thought they could manipulate coverage while hiding the company paying them. What else is hard for me to figure out in this is that Facebook fired them. Sure, like Chrysler its the safe way of distancing yourself from a contractor when the contractor screws up. However, as this Wired article points out, Facebook cannot come out of this looking like the victim. My question is issues like privacy and security are pretty technical and the “information” about Google’s supposed privacy problems had to come from Facebook. So the two PR pros end up looking duped by Facebook into thinking there was a problem there when apparently there really wasn’t. So, the Burson Marsteller staffers look to be the victims of Facebook manipulation rather than the perpetrators.

Regardless of what lies behind this sordid affair, the lessons are too obvious. It comes back down to the basic issues of transparency and honesty. If what you are doing cannot stand the full light of day, then you better ask yourself what your life will look like when it does come into the full light of day. I kind of hate to think that the fear of getting caught is a motivator for right and ethical behavior but I’d rather it be that way than to rely entirely on the moral character. Somehow, that seems to keep failing us.

But, I do think there is a deeper issue here. Apple has recently come under attack for storing users location information on iphone and ipads. When asked for a comment about this I noted that technology providers today face a bit of a dilemma related to using data generated by their customers. On the one hand, all that information provides a basis for some of the most powerful technologies–technologies that we benefit from and are essential in winning the high stakes innovation game. But often those advances depend on mining the ever increasing stream of data that is being created.

I benefited greatly from the navigation system in my CT200h including the warnings that would frequently come up about heavy traffic on my route or an accident up ahead creating stop and go traffic. How do they know that stuff? How can systems know traffic status on essentially all major streets and freeways across the nation? In this case, they must be tapping into data sources provided by state’s departments of transportation. When you start thinking of all the possible uses for the data being generated by the billions of people using smartphones and pad computers it is truly mind-boggling. This issue of collecting, mining, and applying that data for useful purposes will not quickly go away.

Prediction–there will be many more battles about privacy, security and application of user generated information to come. It’s a tricky road for technology providers and ultimately users will have to decide how much they are willing to share and what they will give up by limiting access.


Apple CEO’s leave a predictable, preventable crisis

Anything that would cause stock to lose from 3.5% to 7% of value would probably be considered a crisis in most business circles. When Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs announced a medical leave of absence the overseas markets responded with an initial 7% dip in Apple share value. (Was it intentional to announce the leave on a holiday weekend?) When the markets opened today, the stock initially dropped nearly 7% but as of this writing has regained about half.

I’ve long found it ironic that Apple, which is so beloved by the truly geeky crowd, has been so secretive when transparency and openness is one of the highest values of the social media-geeky crowd. The two didn’t fit. I’ve just assumed that as long a Apple keeps creating “insanely great” products and keeps defining what is cool today, there will be lots of forgiveness.

The famed secrecy around product launches and strategies is clearly part of the personality of Steve Jobs. And that now causes Apple, the company, the shareholders, the employees and also its customers, some serious issues. Jobs is unusually linked to the company as its heart and soul. Indeed, one of the greatest stories in recent business history is how Jobs lost a board fight and was replaced by John Scully as the company emerged from its entrepreneurial beginnings into a large concern needing professional management. But Scully bombed and Jobs returned. His return demonstrated to the world that a company like Apple needs and depends on a visionary leader who, although a pain in behind to work for and with according to personal conversations with people who worked directly with him in those early days, will continue innovate and insist on creating truly breakthrough products.

But this story, combined with Job’s health, plus the famed secrecy is what creates the crisis now. What is Apple’s future? I’m guessing the reason the stock didn’t tank further is there is hope that this is very temporary and Jobs will be back soon. Apple has not made it clear that they may have other visionary talent to carry on the Job’s tradition. Tim Cook, the COO and now acting CEO, is not well known I don’t believe and I’ve never heard any commentators say anything other than he is a good executive. Scully was an outstanding executive. That’s not what Apple shareholders and loyal fans (including me) are hoping for.

There is a veil of silence around this leave of absence. There is great patience because of the loyalty, but that patience will wear thin. Apple in a crisis, a completely predictable and preventable one. How they manage the emerging story of Job’s health problems and future will say much about the future of one of the most successful companies in recent memory.

Update: I just read this post from Business Insider which is parsing Job’s email to employees to deduce that they do not think he will be coming back. This shows again how a paucity of information will lead to all kinds of speculation, parsing, and tea leaf reading. But the message also reminded me, we are talking about a real person here. Steve Jobs is more than a meal ticket for employees and a golden egg laying goose to the millions of happy shareholders. He’s a human being who may be in yet another battle for his life. Which leads one to the question–will he regret not spending another day at the office? No doubt he sacrificed much for the success of his company and his own legacy. Let’s hope he has peace and contentment in the personal choices he has made and in the relationships he has invested in that are the real measure of a human life.

How instant news can impact share price–Apple and the false heart attack report

I just blogged again about citizen journalism and how the mainstream media is adopting citizen journalists as part of their news crews. They are not careful to check the facts–and that is a huge risk for any organization who might find itself in the news.

Today, Apple stock took a 10 point hit this morning based on a false “i-report” on CNN. A citizen “journalist” reported that Steve Jobs, Apple CEO, had a heart attack. It was false and the stock soon recovered.

But, CEOs all around the world ought to be having semi-heart attacks about this danger. How fast will organization respond to a false i-report? Do you think you can count on the CNNs to get the story straight before it appears on their website? Not a chance. The only protection is putting in place the policies, people, plan and platform to respond.