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. ; )

About Rex Hammock

Founder/ceo of Hammock Inc., the customer media and content company based in Nashville, Tenn. Creator of and head-helper at SmallBusiness.com.
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  • http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/ Aaron Pressman

    Maybe the fallout from the iPhone 4 PR debacle will prompt them to change their ways? Seems like it has come at a very inopportune time with many highly-regarded and widely-promoted Android phones also hitting the market…

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Test.

  • http://meganmorris.net/blog megan

    Test

  • http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/ ampressman

    Maybe the reaction here will actually have an impact and prompt Apple to change its ways? This combo PR/design blunder seems pretty epic and comes at a time when Android seems to be gaining both mindshare and marketshare (not to mention availability on a superior network). I know Steve Jobs is supposed to be pretty obstinate but I feel like he actually does change his mind when the market proves him wrong (ie adding video to the iPod, doing e-book deals for the iPad).

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    It will be fascinating to see if/when they throw in the towel. This is a case where I'm sure they don't think they're wrong, so it will be interesting to see when and why they capitulate.

  • http://www.BriefEpisode.com/ Gib Wallis

    I haven't paid for a Consumer Reports subscription to have evaluated all the criteria of their rankings.

    That said, why shouldn't they say that the problems with the phone part of the smartphone are so bad it doesn't matter how smart the smart part of the smartphone is?

    Also, if the biggest problem with the iPhone 4 is dropping calls from touching it a certain way without a case, why shouldn't they as an advocacy group say that the manufacturer should sell a product so that it works as advertised?

    I'm also a longtime Apple fan (but not fanboy) since 1984, but my dissatisfaction with my video iPod is probably a large reason why I don't like the iPhone as much as I do Macs.

  • Giz-Reader

    Gizmodo mention, get ready for some traffic!

  • iphoner

    In this case, I don't think you can say that AT&T is the most obvious problem, as the antenna problem exists on other carriers around the world as well.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Thanks. I should clarify myself and say that AT&T is, in general, the most obvious reason to purchase an iPhone. Not just as it relates to this problem, but how its service is so bad in many places, especially certain major urban centers.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Thanks. I should clarify myself and say that AT&T is, in general, the most obvious reason to purchase an iPhone. Not just as it relates to this problem, but how its service is so bad in many places, especially certain major urban centers.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Why shouldn't they say that? Because the “no recommendation” is an “opinion” and should not have been packaged as part of the “rankings.” Going into the lab tests, they placed certain criteria for weighting the different features of the phones. The iPhone scored tops. If they wanted to change the criteria and scoring, they should have sent the phones back to the labs. Unfortunately, they issued the rankings and the “no recommendation” at the same time, thus linking a “lab” with an “opinion or advocacy decision.” CR certainly has the right to do anything they want, I just think they've done a discredit to the integrity of their “labs” by linking the two together.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=517002938 Dave Jones

    I was genuinely surprised as UK resident to discover the massive U-turn in CR’s apparent verdict on this phone. I personally have just bought the iphone today, literally only 5 hours ago. Having first set it up, I was receiving a full 5 bars of signal, getting curious I tested the theory put to me by all the doom’s day dropping signal stories I’ve read, to discover I genuinely loose all signal strength. All of it, gone. Cover that single little black line on the bottom left and bang, that’s it. iphone becomes an ipod Touch! I’m absolutely gob smacked to be honest!

    But, I can say the functionality outside of this issue has been immense, it’s incredibly fast and performs better than I imagined! And to my relief I’m only having to use it with my left for a brief time due to having an operation on my right shoulder, once I’m out of my sling this won’t be an issue for me. Interesting though and I will continue to follow gizmodo’s responses to what ever Apple come out and say tomorrow. I’ve been a long time Apple user in one form or another and I never thought they we’re capable of such a blunder, to me it almost makes them suddenly feel human to me! If only they could prove them selves capable of being human by handling this obvious glitch in such a way!

  • TheGigaflop

    So basically you say “I don't want to come across as an apologist, but, ok, fine I am one, and I don't think Apple has any fault in this, it's AT&T and Consumer Reports fault! Not my precious Apple.”

    I just summarized your entire entry in one sentence.

  • Bill of Mill Creek

    Well, a fair and direct review of this situation. I don’t use MAC products for three reasons.

    First and foremost, I have a philosophical problems with Apple and especially Steve Jobs. Having worked in the computer industry for 27 years, I have seen Steve Jobs in the beginning when he was a scrappy innovator to what he is not; a self serving putz. His only purpose is to fan the flames of his god like status in the MAC community. He is absolutely unapologetic in this.

    Second, their products are above average in quality, they always fall just short of being fully top of the line when they can easily be the best product out there. The only reason that I can see is that features that would make their products the absolutely the best are not implemented (like flash) is because Jobs can’t make any money on it.

    Third, Apple and Steve Jobs are so much about control that even battery replacement is under their control. Why? To make money. No other reason. Any method to extract money off the customer, you can bet that Apple is doing it.

    I can’t support a company like that.

  • A1a76543

    What a weird year. Name brands at the top of their games seemingly dropping the ball completely (Apple, BP, Toyota, the entire financial sector, the Dutch and French soccer teams…). Almost begs the question, are these all related? Anyway, just want to make the point I think there's bigger problems at play here. From the whole “it just works” mantra to the way products are created and packaged, everything communicates that Apple knows what to do and how to do it. In other words, Apple is in full control of itself. This gaff, and the leaked iPhone 4 episode, seems to speak of a company growing more out of control. That the company would allow PR to implode so mightily is the strongest indication yet that something is deeply wrong. As you noted, PR is one of Apple's strong points, so how can this happen? Well, suppose Steve is losing his grip? Or maybe internal work units are not cooperating properly? Or execs are now too smug to be in touch anymore? Could it be Apple's running out of innovation and is pushing into ever riskier projects and designs? Or, heaven forbid, everything above? Whatever it is, when problems surface so publicly via PR – in which Apple excels – it's time to take more serious notice. I think it's a whole lot more than AT&T.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    I agree: You just summarized my entire entry in one sentence. Except, I don't think Apple is precious.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    I can understand why you and others can't support companies like that.

    But I do not believe Steve Jobs' motivation is just money.

    He is obsessed with industrial design and design, in general — an obsession too few individuals in technology share. It's this obsession that motivates his need to do it his way, damn what may. (Actually, there are probably some other psychological reasons, also, but we all have our quirks in that dept.)

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    My point is, Apple excels in PR when the wind is to their back — and it always is. They are clueless when their traditional methods of media management don't work. I've said before, the worst place anyone could start their career in PR is Apple because they start believing the real world is like that. At Apple, PR is like hitting a tennis ball up against a wall vs. PR anywhere else, where you actually have someone on the other side of the net.

  • Asyd_Rayn

    Great article and that tennis ball analogy is great. If you'll indulge me, I'd like to add another culprit — the media plays a pivotal role in this dysfunctional relationship.

    In no other industry would the press be at the beck and call of a company like it is for Apple, it certainly wasn't that way when I worked in corp. comm for both cable and broadcast TV and I certainly didn't have a CEO who made off the cuff comment to contend with. Tech media and the proliferation of bloggers and their “reporters” essentially act as note takers to what apple puts out with no one ever really investigating or questioning the logic of decisions, functionality, interactions with customers or the deficiencies in their products. If one looked at their forum one could write an article a day for ten years with all the things that have been broken in one app or another, the shoddy mobileme service, updates that break things that once worked and the list goes on and on. Instead everyone sits around speculating on the next big thing or rumors or photoshopped pictures.

    The problem isn't just Apple/AT&T; it's Apple, AT&T and the media that covers Apple. Apple beat reporters need a Watergate moment, perhaps iPhone4 will finally provide that moment.

  • Lost And Disenchanted

    Except the aesthetics, there is not much of Industrial Design in Apple's products, at least no more than others. We designed their best product, Apple iPod. So, I know it well. They don't even know how to design product update designing. These days, Apple beats Microsoft in the volume of updates they churn out.

  • Bill

    “Apple’s exclusive relationship with AT&T is the problem, not the antenna.”

    Wrong. No carrier will ever have perfect coverage. Every carrier will have low coverage spots. When you touch the corner of the iPhone4 you lose signal strength. The problem is the stupid exposed antenna.

  • http://twitter.com/WaltFrench Walt French

    A small point: as a long-time CR reader, I occasionally see, “the XYZ scored really well but we do not have enough info yet to recommend how well it will hold up.” Especially for rather different designs, say, a hybrid auto.

    How Apple will handle AntennaGate was an unknown, and as long as their testing was unable to rule out that this would be a long-term, possibly rising aggravation, their withholding the badge was at least roughly consistent with their past practice. (Their editorial, that Apple should fix it free, was not.)

  • http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/ ampressman

    I just couldn’t disagree more with this meme that somehow it’s the reporters who are so biased in favor of Apple that is somehow to blame for Apple’s PR successes or failures. Dave Winer has been one of the most prominent floggers of this theory. The reporters who cover Apple are, like the reporters who cover any major company or figure, somewhat dependent on the company for access but are mainly motivated to make a splash and negative stories make the biggest splash. I don’t know how anyone can possibly suggest that the press is never questioning the logic or investigating Apple. It’s absurd on its face. Look at the investigation we did about the suicides at Foxconn and all the related coverage. How many articles in every major publication have compared iPhone to Android and questioned whether Apple was making the same error it made with PC operating systems? Not to mention intensely critical coverage of Apple’s PR tactics that crops up all the time like around Jobs’ health or when they sent the cops after the prototype seller. Please do not drag the media into this.

    LATER: Headline from Newsweek piece today: The Genocide Behind Your Smart Phone

  • Anonymous

    I’m not disagreeing with Winer or Rex on their analysis, I’m simply saying that those that cover Apple on a regular basis, bloggers and tech reporters on various sites and magazines dance to Apple’s tune when it comes to coverage and Apple gets away with its 20th Century PR practices and strategy because 21st Century press goes along with it. In fact a similar example is the country’s financial crisis and how few financial reporters didn’t connect the dots to the impending financial meltdown — instead reporting on the brisk home sale business and corporate earnings, reporters who cover and who should know or smell something wasn’t just right. Press I’ve dealt with that cover TV and cable business and programming don’t reciprocate if the relationship is one-sided, it’s a symbiotic relationship and when necessary adversarial; it becomes adversarial usually when media starts asking the tough questions or challenges the hype, statements or claims being made by the organization being covered.Rex’s tennis ball analogy in the comment above seems to speak to this, at least to me. Apple determines where on that wall it aims the ball without ANY outside influence or worry about how it will be perceived or without having to deal with someone else determining the path, flight and rotation of the ball when it’s sent back over the net. That wall he speaks of is the media and it how deals with Apple. That’s my interpretation of his comment and we can agree to disagree.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    What percentage of the news coverage Apple has received in the past ten years would you consider to be negative, or at least, critical (in the sense that it did not follow the party line)? How many people even know what you’re talking about when you say “suicides at Foxconn.” I agree with you that lots of reporters have written about Apple’s faults (Dvorak has made a career of it.) But, at least until now, any such critical reporting has be drowned by Apple fan-boy vuvulezas. They’ve never gotten negative backlash with such a unified front.

  • http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/ ampressman

    You may be saying something else, which is that readers or people in general haven’t paid much attention to negative coverage of Apple or that commenters or bloggers have drowned out bad stories. I’m not sure I agree but what I really don’t get is how people like Winer, or Asyd above, can say the media just acts as notetakers and always swallows Apple’s party line. Apple gets regular negative coverage for all kinds of things in all the major news outlets.

    Just run down the NYT Apple page (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/companies/apple_computer_inc/index.html) where recent stories include Verizon doesn’t need the iPhone, Consumer Reports says iPhone has flaw, Apple not doing well in China, rising labor costs hurting iPhone, an op-ed about the ties between Apple suppliers and war in the Congo, Apple being viewed as a bully in Silicon Valley, several articles voicing complaints from app store developers and on and on (that’s just going back one month).

    At the end of the day, you don’t get to be the second-most valuable company in the entire U.S. stock market — and one of the fastest growing large corporations to boot — without doing a lot of things right. So I’m sure there’s also plenty of positive coverage. But there’s no pro-Apple conspiracy in the media.

    Maybe it would clarify things if you or others could give a handful of examples of times when Apple deserved criticism or questioning but the press was fawning. On the other hand, I’ve perceived major stories that the media got wrong by being too negative including on the release of the original iPod and the immediate reaction when the iPad arrived.

  • Anonymous

    OK, I see what you’re saying. I’m not saying they don’t get bad press, they do get it but never in a way that impacts consumers decisions about their products. That’s where it will bring about change in behavior on the part of Apple/Jobs. When he’s sees he no longer has reporters who will merely act as roadside reflectors for his message. That’s hard to do since they probably weed those types out with invites.

    Also, the things you speak of are so far removed from the everyday user that fans aren’t reading that stuff and half these kids probably couldn’t tell you where Congo is or think Apple employees are fighting there for the supplies to bring them the next magical device.

    Yes, there is negative coverage but not where it counts for the average consumer — this current iteration of the iphone being the example. Yea IP4 has an antenna issue but you’d be hard-pressed to find a critique of this phone were the criticism discusses the reality that a device who’s major function as a PHONE has problems unless one puts a bumper on it. But the media covering apple talks instead talks about the display, the new apps, the faster processor, added memory, its slim design..it’s a phone first and foremost. If I want the other stuff I’ll get an ipad or Touch. Even CR falls short…if it’s broken it gets no gold stars, period. But as always there’s an exception or dual standard for Apple and the media analysis becomes all that’s positive while minimizing the negative. That’s like giving a Toyota 4.5 stars because the car is DRIVABLE and environmentally friendly despite the fact that it has exceleration issues. Or Blackberry not reliably delivering messages with push and saying you can use your phones browser to call up your email instead and sayings its STILL the best mobile device for push delivery of email.

    Another example: today, Jobs takes the stage to discuss a major issue and the reporters there are clapping, very minor observation, but that says a lot. No CEO is looking for adulation from the press in a crisis, but Jobs seems to expect it and they give it to him. I’ve seen one report today with the headline “Arrogant Apple Offers IP4 Bumper Bribe” the rest basically say all is well in Whoville but I haven’t finished reading most of the account. I actually mapped out how the press conference would go today on a post in a CNET discussion and the only thing I got wrong was that Jobs actually took questions and those he answered were almost non-answers or dismissive, like when he was asked if he knew about the issue and he pivots to “are you talking about the Bloomberg Report.” If I had been in the audience I would have said “I don’t depend on other reports, I’m asking when you knew about it the antenna problem.” Instead the question is “answered” and everyone moves on ’cause Jobs says it’s BS.

    I’m part of the fraternity, I’ve been on-air (radio) and a corporate mouthpiece, so I’m not bashing media but am critical of the fact that it has let itself be engulfed in Apple’s well-oiled reality distortion field.

  • http://www.AlexGPR.com AlexanderG

    Great post. In a piece I posted this morning, I cover the PR territory where Apple seems to be paralyzed. http://www.alexgpr.com/2010/07/iphone-pr/

  • http://www.AlexGPR.com AlexanderG

    Great post. In a piece I posted this morning, I cover the PR territory where Apple seems to be paralyzed. http://www.alexgpr.com/2010/07/iphone-pr/

  • lilcy

    I have a good feeling Apple will make this right. It just might take them a minute to figure out HOW they are going to PROPERLY fix the issue. Obviously the initial reaction by Apple to this problem was NOT a good one. Their PR needs to go back to school and figure out the proper way to confront issues like this.

    What's really odd to me in this issue is that the press is covering it with all the passion of the Toyota recall.
    But remember: Brake failure can easily cause death. This is just a cell phone that needs to be fixed.
    It would probably have been smart to have this much intensity put behind the recall of all those medicinal products like Tylenol, Rolaids, etc. coming out of a single plant in Puerto Rico. They pulled Rolaids from the market ENTIRELY (except for the little rolls) for 6 months.
    What a weird, weird, world.

    I love the iP4. The retina display, photography, HD video, beautiful glass design, and other attributes really makes this stand out above the rest.
    http://ifunia.com/iphone-column/index.html
    Despite its problems with reception which is easily remedied with a bumper I would take it over a 3GS any day.