The real news: The Apple PR machine attenuates

cell phone

I’ve tried to avoid the topic of Consumer Reports’ “not recommending” the iPhone 4 because, frankly, it became apparent instantly to me that most news coverage of what Consumer Reports actually did was mis-reported so, thus, if I tried to explain what I think on the matter, I would appear to be an Apple apologist. Unfortunately (and even more confusing to people), my schadenfreude from watching Apple and its army of fan boys not being able to “handle” the media on this matter also probably kept me from getting too enthused about doing something that might appear to be “defending” Apple.

Here’s my deal with Apple. I love their products. I can’t stress that enough. I’ve spent most of everyday since 1984 using Apple products to do my work. For an article a few years ago, I did a rough calculation of the time I have actually “touched” an Apple product since 1984 and it was the equivalent to a decade, even then.

I have written extensively, and with admiration, about the company’s advertising and how, when others were dismissing the effectiveness of advertising in magazines or, frankly, of the effectiveness of advertising anywhere “but the web,” Apple spent heavily (and effectively) on everything but online advertising (as a percentage of their advertising budget) and in so doing, grew market share. Let me say that again: Over the past four years, Apple has remained committed to advertising heavily in such “traditional media” as print (including newspapers, but especially magazines), TV and outdoor advertising to launch products and build market share for existing products while most companies diverted larger and larger portions of their budgets into online efforts that have been, for most, a rat hole with very little ROI.

Even when I’ve personally disagreed with an Apple advertising approach (the mean-spiritedness and, frankly, mis-leading nature of the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” campaign) I’ve still recognized their effectiveness and the way in which Apple’s advertising runs circles around its competitors.

So, there: I’ve disclosed that I love Apple products and admire its advertising, marketing and retail brilliance.

What confuses people is how I can do all that, but still enjoy seeing Apple get clobbered for something that probably is not nearly the big deal it is being portrayed as.

Well, here’s the deal: I hate Apple’s approach to Public Relations. Call it media relations, promotions, corporate communications, whatever. Apple’s philosophy is to leverage all of its power (and it has lots) to maintain maximum control through any means possible, over anything that is written or reported about the company, its products or Steve Jobs. When it comes to PR, Apple practices mid-20th century propaganda techniques — with nothing that even hints of transparency and openness that has proven to be effective for most companies who have adopted 21st century approaches.

While there are only a few companies that can actually pull that off, the fact Apple does it provides all the proof hundreds of CEOs need to believe their companies can do the same. Thus, Apple and Steve Jobs, who are the “exception to the rule” about so much, serve as the “role model” for many who don’t actually comprehend why and how Jobs & Co. can pull it off. It’s like when Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca did its commercials effectively, making the 99% of CEOs who couldn’t think they can.

(I hate doing what I’m about to do, because I have this long-held belief that one should never use anything associated with Hitler when comparing something, because, inevitably, someone will say, “Are you really comparing X to the holocaust?” So let’s get this straight, I’m not comparing anything to the holocaust. [See also: Goodwin’s Law, which I help prove [but with some finesse, I hope] in the following observation.]) Apple’s approach to PR is straight from the Leni Riefenstahl playbook. It is conceived, scripted and and executed with precision. And, in the same way even those who disdain the role of her work in propagandizing Hitler still heap praise on the “artistry” and “brilliance” of Riefenstahl’s filmmaking, Apple’s success at “managing” media relations is constantly touted by “experts” while most of us know deep in our gut there’s something wrong with how Apple believes intimidation, secrecy, lawsuits and theatrics will always trump transparency and conversation.

And so, I find myself in the position of believing that it is only fair — indeed, it is good — that Apple is discovering their chosen sword cuts both ways. It is only appropriate that the ridiculous momentum of “hype” and “spin” it benefits from actually responds to some physics of logic.

Chapter Two:

I hate having to add an addendum to that which I’ve written above that must begin, “On the other hand…” But, on the other hand, I’ve spent lots of time trying to conclude otherwise, but personally, I think we’re witnessing one gigantic tempest in a very tiny tea cup.

So, after trying to avoid this topic, here are my thoughts:

1. Apple’s exclusive relationship with AT&T is the problem, not the antenna. I happen to live and work in a part of Nashville that is saturated with AT&T signal, so I can’t replicate any problems with my iPhone 4. However, I was able to easily replicate the problem at the Apple Store about a mile away from my office (and yes, even after doing so, I still ordered one). And, because I know people in New York who must use their AT&T phones in a certain half of their bedroom because the other half has weak reception, I completely understand the reality of any problem related to AT&T (and thus, the iPhone) signal strength. However, rather than a hardware problem, I believe it’s a business-strategy problem that can only be fixed when Apple sells iPhones through other carriers.

2. Consumer Reports methodology is flawed: I’m not talking here about the “science” of their research. I’m talking about the illogic of their method. The aspect of what Consumer Report did that is most misunderstood is, frankly, the kind of thing Consumer Report would attack if a consumer marketer tried to do it. CR wanted to have it both ways. Their lab research revealed, when compared to all other smart phones, the iPhone 4 was the best — the top ranked. However, CR knew it would alienate their consumer-advocacy readers if they issued such a ranking without addressing “the elephant in the room.”

It would be (very hypothetically speaking, as I’m just making the following up) like the Sierra Club doing a comparison of environmental practices of oil companies and discovering that, despite the runaway oil well in the gulf, BP had the best practices. No way could the Sierra Club publish that without also saying, “Despite those findings, we can’t recommend you buying anything from BP.”

The fact is, the Consumer Reports “lab” reveals that the iPhone 4, even with the “attenuation” problem, is still the best smart phone one can purchase today. It was only when the people at Consumer Reports came out of the lab and decided, based on PR reasons, they should override the lab guys and make a recommendation based more on (take your pick) business reasons, trying to play both sides of the issue, not seeming stupid.

However, if CR is going to tout their “labs,” they should say, “We reserve the right to disregard our test findings if we decide the timing is bad for us to consider “all” the features of a product because everyone seems concerned with a specific feature of the product. In other words, I believe this “subjective” kicker they’ve added to their testing detracts from the “objectivity” of the whole testing purpose.

If they don’t address how lab results can be re-weighted for publicity purposes, Consumer Reports risks having “No” become the answer to the question Jenna Wortham asks on the NYT’s Gadgetwise Blog: “Can Consumer Reports Hurt the iPhone?” — except the question will be broadened to include any product.

3. Bottomline: There are lots of reasons to not buy an iPhone 4 – AT&T being its exclusive carrier, being the most obvious. But Consumer Reports not recommending it while rating the phone “the best” in its category is a rather attenuated reason.

Bonus link: Dave Winer: In his post, “Apple’s Brewing Shitstorm,” Dave says I’m right but I don’t go far enough. He does. ; )