Three crisis communications experts analyze Apple’s marcom strategy
For most brands, the words “warrant,” “court order” and “Department of Justice” do not paint the narrative of a good communications campaign—nor do they tell a story most brands want heard. But Apple, the world’s most valuable company, known for pushing boundaries, made a clear and controversial statement on February 16 when CEO Tim Cook published an open letter to customers explaining the tech company’s stance on the FBI’s request for engineered access to an iPhone involved in the investigation of the San Bernardino shootings that took place in December of 2015.
In response to Apple’s refusal to build a solution for the FBI, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a motion compelling Apple to comply with the court order issued against it. Apple officially responded, maintaining its position.
In its motion, the DOJ says, “Apple’s current refusal to comply with the Court’s Order, despite the technical feasibility of doing so, instead appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy.” Harlan Loeb, global chair of Edelman’s crisis and risk practice, says that accusation is predictable but overly simplistic. He and two other corporate communications experts (Melissa Arnoff, senior vice president at Levick, and Don Martelli, vice president at Schneider Associates) weighed in on how effectively Apple has communicated its stance against the FBI and how crisis communications have evolved in the age of content marketing and ubiquitous information.
Q: How would you evaluate Apple’s communications strategy thus far?
HL: Apple is doing something that other companies are increasingly doing far better than they used to, and that is being vocal and transparent on highly contentious issues that they believe matter to their company. We’ve moved from an age of command and control where you hold information tight to where the expectation of the overwhelming majority of the public is that they want to know what you believe in. They want to understand your point of view. If you’re in an industry and you have a point of view or should and don’t articulate it, you’re mortgaging your trust.
DM: Any time [Apple has] had to address any major issues, like the Antennagate they had or major issues they’ve had with production of devices, they’ve hit it head on. They’ve gotten their most powerful speakers out in front of the media, addressed it directly, and honestly, with a little sense of arrogance. … As a marketer, you can see [Tim Cook’s open letter] was a very crafted, nuanced, detailed and very poignant letter to address every single one of the issues the government was bringing up. In our work with our crisis clients we always counsel them to hit the key issues head on. Don’t get fluffy, don’t get wishy-washy. You want to go one-to-one [on accusations] because the minute you get wish-washy, you’re not really addressing the issues and you start trying to “PR it”,” [and] that’s when the doubts come into play. That’s when people ask more questions. That’s when a situation swells to a point where it almost gets out of control.
MA: Apple is playing on this reputation of being a rebel and being innovative. So taking the position of doing what’s right for consumers and not caving in to the government absolutely fits with their brand.
"If you’re in an industry and you have a point of view or should and don’t articulate it, you’re mortgaging your trust." - Harlan Loeb
Q: Was the open letter an effective channel for communicating Apple’s position?
HL: This discussion has become highly asymmetrical. Apple’s been able to articulate a very clear and resonant point of view and position that the Justice Department has not been able to match. That’s particularly important because it means there’s a face to Apple. Apple has humanized their point of view in a way that is resonating clearly with influencers. Social influencers, other technology companies and technology experts are finding rank with the point of view that Apple is articulating and fortifying. On the other hand, we see in our trust studies that the government is distrusted to begin with, so they’re opening the conversation in a deficit. They’re not humanizing in any way. I say this as a lawyer, they’re pursuing this as lawyers would. They’re playing on some important policy issue but it doesn’t match [Apple’s] emotional connectivity.
MA: If you go to the Apple corporate website, it’s really hard to find anything on this issue. They haven’t put out a news release. … But I think one of the advantages that Apple has is that being the enormous global company that it is, with millions of phones out there, anything they do is going to make it in the news. So they’ve been using their court appearances and congressional hearing appearances as communication channels as well. And most companies couldn’t do that. …
I think [Apple is] helped by the fact that we see news stories about data breaches every day. I think playing into that risk makes sense. … I think Apple is in a good position to play on the fears of government overreach and the world of Edward Snowden and wire taps and the Patriot Act and Big Brother, which is why I think even though polls I’ve seen say the majority of the public doesn’t support Apple, it comes down to how much does this affect you personally. I think while most people have some concerns about terrorist attacks, I think they have more concern about the iPhone that’s sitting in their own pockets.
DM: [Apple’s] communications strategy has been very forceful, out front and, in a way, that’s very Apple. If this was 1985 and they were launching their first device, they probably would have issued a press release and had a press conference. In this case, Apple is very tied to their brand. They want to control every single message. The theatrics that go into just showing a phone—the black screen, the video and the music, and the orchestration of that is very Apple—and this issue and the way they addressed it is also very Apple. [The communications are] on their website, [they used an] open letter, even the font they used is very clean yet simple. It looks like an Apple product. The way they did it allowed them to control their message. There’re a ton of eyes on Apple regardless of if they’re going through this issue or launching a new device, so whatever they do from a communications standpoint that’s outside of the norm is going to get eyeballs.
"I think while most people have some concerns about terrorist attacks, I think they have more concern about the iPhone that’s sitting in their own pockets." - Melissa Arnoff
Q: Any time a company takes a stance on a controversial issue there will be detractors. Do you think Apple will suffer any loss by taking this stance?
MA: We as a public tend to have a pretty short memory. [Levick has] been looking a lot at Uber’s response to the Kalamazoo shootings and thinking about if that‘s going to impact the Uber brand. There may be people who are mad at Uber for a while, but if they’re used to using Uber and they think it’s an easy and convenient alternative to public transit or a taxi, they may privately boycott Uber for a week, but then they’ll go back to what’s easy for them. Another example is Chipotle. Chipotle was making hundreds of people sick, and we saw media interviews where people said, “I love Chipotle so much I’m willing to roll the dice.”
HL: The big takeaway for me is the extent to which Apple has gone, right or wrong, to articulate its point of view without reservation, without hedging, on an issue that’s clearly contentious, and clearly they will have detractors. And for many companies, that’s new ground that they fear to the core. They feel like it’s taking a position in an electoral race, and what if we bet on the wrong candidate? I think that’s a faulty assumption because people now expect to hear from companies and know what they think. The less they say, the less they’re trusted.