Apple, Major Corporations Take Stand Against AZ Bill

 Apple, Major Corporations Take Stand Against AZ Bill

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to Apple, American Airlines, Marriott, and the NFL.

Taking sides on religious issues was previously considered a bad idea for corporations. Better to remain neutral, lest someone – meaning, potential customers with buying dollars – be offended. Those days are over as of this week, when Apple, American Airlines, the Marriott hotel corporation, and the National Football League sent a message to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer: Veto Senate Bill 1062 or suffer economic consequences.

The now-infamous bill legalizes the right of business owners to refuse service to gays and lesbians on religious grounds. Gov. Brewer, a conservative, has said she is “undecided” on whether to sign the bill into law.

Her decision may be assisted by threat of corporate boycott. Phoenix, AZ, is host to next year’s SuperBowl, and major corporations are making their non-neutral stance clear. Brewer may want to listen to Apple in particular: the tech giant planned to bring sapphire production to the state, which would have major economic impact – as would its loss. While no official statement came from Apple, Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines, summed up the new corporate stance when he wrote to Brewer, “Our economy thrives best when the doors of commerce are open to all.”

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to Apple, American Airlines, Marriott, the NFL, and corporations that take a stand against discrimination.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: It’s not always about the bottom line, even when it’s about the bottom line. Discrimination is wrong, period; about that, no one can argue. Even three of the senators who voted for SB 1062 are now urging Gov. Brewer to veto it. Companies never want to alienate customers, but at certain points, the only thing to do is take a strong stance. Sure, the lynchpin here is money. But in past times companies might have been content to say they were “gathering information,” or say nothing at all. Some may still be doing that, but the ones that speak up are the ones that stand out.

The PRV 2013 Final Grade: And the “F” Goes to…

Healthcare Exchanges The PRV 2013 Final Grade: And the F Goes to...THE PR VERDICT’S “F” (FULL FIASCO) grade goes to HealthCare.gov, the website hub for US citizens to sign up for government-supplied health insurance. A long hoped-for dream of affordable healthcare for Americans, and what Barack Obama surely thought would be his presidential legacy, has turned into what is generally described as a nightmare.

Getting the Affordable Health Care Act bill passed seemed the hard part. The next step was constructing a website that would be easy to navigate and able to handle an onslaught of Americans in need of insurance. But surely this would be a cinch for Microsoft or Apple or any of America’s tech giants. Maybe, if they’d gotten the contract, or even been consulted.

From the start, HealthCare.gov was a disaster. The site bounced users off, refused to save their data, or was impossible to log onto. Worse, the few who did manage to get on and didn’t want to change their plans suddenly found themselves without insurance. The President’s angry promises to get the site fixed were empty next to facts emerging from a commission (yes, things went that bad). Not enough testing, wrong mainframe, blah tech excuse blah. Only this week has Microsoft been called in, but help arrived too late to save this story.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Under-promise and over-deliver. It’s easy to see why President Obama would have wanted to offer affordable healthcare as soon as possible. Now, in hindsight, it’s easy to see why he should have waited. The achievement is one thing, implementation an entirely different animal. Whether looking at a presidential legacy or a small business breaking sales expectations with a big account, plan. Factor in worst-case scenarios. Hire the best consultants. When the back-slapping over a major win is done, take a hard look at what’s ahead to see that your promise doesn’t become an error fail.

Tech Titans Flex Anti-Surveillance Muscle With… a Website?

SurvReform Tech Titans Flex Anti Surveillance Muscle With... a Website?

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Big Tech’s anti-snooping website.

The tech sector’s biggest names – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others – have taken a hit this year for their complicity with government surveillance programs. With each new creepy disclosure on the depth and scope of the spying, the tech firms have found more courage to fight back  for the freedom of the Internet and the privacy rights of their users. Hence this week we have their boldest move to date…um, a new website?

Well, a feckless-looking Silicon Valley had to do something. Eight firms with a combined value of $1.4 trillion have signed on to an effort to reform “global” government surveillance – though clearly the main bogey is the US. Taking the time-honored but largely symbolic tack of an “open letter to Washington,” the tech firms cite the “urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide” and implore the US to take the lead. “For our part, we are focused on keeping users’ data secure,” they add. Not to mention their business models.

What’s missing? How about telecom companies, network equipment makers, financial interests like credit card companies? Again, it’s a start. As a skeptic notes, the effort is driven more by economic than good-government interest, as the firms continue to face backlash for cooperating with the surveillance effort in the first place.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for the tech sector backers of surveillance reform.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Give your cause higher purpose. You’ll win more friends, allies and better headlines. The Tech sector backers of the surveillance reform effort have a clear economic interest in protecting their users from prying government eyes. But “Don’t spy on our users – we might lose money” is hardly a rallying cry. Silicon Valley is imbued with a libertarian spirit that abhors government intrusion, if not always for the noblest reasons. Whether the website is just a PR move, or a lead-in to real political action backed by the sector’s considerable economic might, will be monitored closely. And not just by government snoops.

Microsoft Gives Ballmer a Soft-Landing Sendoff

ballmer bw Microsoft Gives Ballmer a Soft Landing Sendoff

The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for Microsoft and its long, slow farewell to Steve Ballmer.

Steve Ballmer’s slow exit as Microsoft CEO, announced last week, was either a surprise, or it wasn’t. Long-planned, or hastily arranged. Came at the “right time” or was long overdue. As always, it depends on the source. Tech’s original mega-gorilla, once disruptive but now doddering, did its best to give him a nice sendoff, while practically every other observer fell on the corpse to stick knives in for his decidedly mixed tenure.

Give Microsoft credit: Ballmer’s 13-year term at the helm, which will end sometime in the next 12 months, saw annualized profit grow 16 percent, but also a $600 billion market cap cut by more than half. The post-mortems dredged up other big misses – the Surface tablet PC, Windows Vista, and the Windows phone. Small wonder the company stock enjoyed a seven percent bounce on the day of the announcement.

Despite the rehash, Microsoft came away looking good. The company has been under fire for some time for having no clear transition plan. Now it does, announced in fairly orderly fashion. Transition management isn’t easy under the best of circumstances, and certainly Microsoft’s were far from that. The company needed to make a decisive but not too sudden move, and succeeded.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Microsoft, for sticking to a classic PR script that minimizes blowback and cements its key messages.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Big news, even if double-edged, has its advantages. When breaking it, remember that you control the story and can pick your timing. The Ballmer announcement came on a Friday in late August, about the sleepiest time of the year, and in standalone form: It won’t be directly linked to Microsoft’s last sorry earnings announcement in July, which featured a $900 million product writedown. Nor will it distract much from its next product release, Windows 8.1, in October. The company made Ballmer available for one interview, and that will be the reference going forward. Finally, it left the exact timing of his departure vague, concealing behind an opaque corporate façade the likely fact that he is already gone.

Does Microsoft Need to Think Different?

Ballmer MSFT tablet Does Microsoft Need to Think Different?

The PR Verdict: “D” (PR Problematic) for Steve Ballmer’s Microsoft.

Pity poor Microsoft – no, really. Tech’s original 800 lb. gorilla may have shed a few pounds since its heyday, but it continues to punch well below its weight. And its PR strategy, such as it is, doesn’t seem to be helping much.

Consider this: While its Q4 2013 earnings, announced last week, showed enviable revenue and income gains year over year, they also included a $900 million writedown on unsold inventory of its Surface RT tablet computer, a hoped-for iPad killer. In response, it announced a management shake-up of its hardware division. Its stock tanked anyway, dropping 11 percent  and erasing $30 billion in value.

From a PR standpoint, Microsoft continues to fare the worst among seven tech giants caught up in an ongoing debacle over the US government’s Internet eavesdropping program known as PRISM. It ill-advisedly sought to use the breach to stoke competition, going after Google in a PR campaign promoting online privacy. That proved embarrassing after new disclosures surfaced that Microsoft helped the government circumvent its own encryption methods.

Institutional investors, dismayed by the company’s strategy and execution, want a seat on the board and a say in management. Of particular concern is succession planning for CEO Steve Ballmer, who has led the company since 2000. Microsoft says it has a plan but won’t disclose it.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Microsoft. Its half-measures, hubris and haughtiness suggest the need for a full-on PR intervention.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Take a hard look within. A periodic full-scale review of PR strategy is essential, and best conducted by an outside consultant free from corporate groupthink, before a crisis. Microsoft is fumbling on basic issues management. It could have given investors succor with a mea culpa on its product writedown. It could allay the longer-term management concerns with greater transparency. It should have seen the folly in trying to capitalize on the privacy issue while damaging disclosures were potentially in the wind. Long-time archrival Apple has maintained goodwill in the past with public acknowledgments and apologies for its missteps. To quote its rival, Microsoft needs to “Think different.”

PRISM, Through the PR Looking Glass

 PRISM, Through the PR Looking Glass

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Silicon Valley’s tech giants, for keeping it short but not mincing words in response to PRISM allegations.

PRISM, news outlets reported last week, is a clandestine program under which the US National Security Agency obtained “direct” access to the servers of Microsoft, Apple, Google, AOL, and Facebook, all of whom signed on to the program. The disclosure came on the heels of similar revelations about the government obtaining call logs of Verizon customers and spying on journalists. As described by the media, PRISM, an acronym for “Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management,” appears to be far more obtrusive and Orwellian than previously thought. One anonymous source said it enabled the NSA to “literally watch you as you type.”

Or does it? Faster than a trending tweet, the companies mentioned as being complicit in the citizen spying issued unambiguous denials. “Outrageous,” said Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. “Never heard of PRISM,” said Apple. Those denials, plus the government’s declassification and disclosure of some PRISM details, cast doubt on the story, which drew surprisingly muted public outrage anyway. Verizon’s response, in contrast, seemed contrived and concerned more with containing PR damage. The Washington Post, one of the outlets that broke the story, appeared later to walk back its initial reporting as other media outlets found experts to assert that the leaked PRISM documents had been misread.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Silicon Valley’s tech giants, for keeping it short.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Keep it simple. When the story is misleading or just plain wrong, don’t waste a second in responding. Don’t get bogged down in ambiguous language that produces the infamous non-denial denial. Sometimes PR is not just about PR; it’s about setting the record straight, and doing so before a story long on accusations but short on facts spins wildly out of control. Journalists can make mistakes and some – gasp! – have agendas. When the press bites, reach out to your journalism friends (you have made some friends, haven’t you?) to set the story straight. And remember; bonus points for acting aggrieved, not angry.

Cook Keeps Apple’s PR Polished

 Cook Keeps Apples PR Polished

The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for Tim Cook and Apple.

Though its market value has declined by a gasp-inducing one-third since September, Apple remains the most valuable public company in the world. Nearly everyone expects each new Apple product launch or refresh to be a game-changer, so when the company falls short of these outsized expectations, it tends to be publicly punished more harshly than others. As Apple moves inevitably through a period of slower growth and longer product cycles, its need to manage expectations and tend to its well-burnished image takes on greater prominence. PR to the rescue!

CEO Tim Cook, who has performed superbly in the all-but-impossible role as successor to the iconic Apple leader Steve Jobs, is well aware of these imperatives, as is Apple’s best-in-class PR and marketing team. Apple’s annual developers conference, where it typically unveils its latest and greatest, starts next Monday. Cook has been out polishing his Apple in preceding weeks, successfully defending the company in a May 21 appearance before a Senate committee bent on making Apple the poster child for corporate tax avoidance. Last week, at a prominent tech conference, he laid out a less aggressive but still ambitious agenda of product development, strategy, and enhancement for 2013, affirming that Apple has “several more game changers in us” but refraining from promising the iMoon. What the secretive, surprise-loving Apple will unveil next week remains anyone’s best guess. Fortunately, people are still guessing.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Apple and Tim Cook, for taking care of business when business doesn’t take care of itself. Probably only Steve Jobs himself could earn an “A.”

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Reputation management never ends, but occasionally it takes on heightened importance. Apple responded proactively and aggressively to accusations of tax avoidance and put the blame where it belongs – on the tax code. It did so at a time when its product cycle has slipped ever so slightly back to earth, addressing that with statements tempering specific (and more measurable) short-term expectations while promising bigger, better, shinier things to come. The trick is finding the PR wording that allows everyone to hear what they wanted or expected to hear – not easy, but as Apple’s combined management and PR teams have shown, it can be done.

Is Apple’s PR Bruised?

 Is Apples PR Bruised?What to think of Apple? To hear stock analysts and business anchors talk, one would think Goliath had just taken a severe hit to the head. Apple has been the undisputed giant of tech for so long that the slightest waver on its feet has everyone talking about how the mighty may soon be falling.

True, profits are down – about 18 percent this quarter, and the first decline for Apple in a decade. Speculation that the company might slope downward following the demise of leader Steve Jobs didn’t come to pass immediately, but the birth of competitive, and cheaper, products are starting to pose a threat. And there are no new products coming from Apple, which is bad news for a company that caters to consumers mad for the latest in tech devices.

Another first for Apple is having to borrow money. The explanation? Rather than face taxes on bringing in offshore assets, Apple will take a loan to pay $100 billion to shareholders by 2015, which pleases some, but perplexes others. Bottom line: should Apple be in crisis mode or business as usual?

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Apple. The news isn’t good, but then again it isn’t all rotten.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: A company’s reputation can precede, and quiet, speculation. Apple may be wavering in its long-held number one slot, but one of the company’s priorities has been building a brand. People don’t speak of phones; they talk about iPhones and lead iLives. Consumers still see Apple products as cool and a cut above the rest despite their ubiquity.  While cheaper products may come around, it will take far more than that to put a dent in Apple’s brand loyalty. Apple’s PR should continue to polish its image and brand and let the stock price see-saw of its own accord. Apple’s upward unrelating share price climb had to come to an end at some point. Best thing is to pause and catch a PR breath.

A Sweeter Apple?

 A Sweeter Apple?

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Apple’s apology to Chinese customers.

What a difference a CEO makes. The change in Apple Inc.’s executive suite was evident this week when the company posted a fulsome apology from CEO Tim Cook on the Apple China web site. Apple, it seems, was not properly responding to complaints about its warranty and repair programs, prompting the Chinese government and state-run media to launch a fortnight of blistering criticism. In Cook’s mea culpa, which ran 12,000 Chinese characters (about 800 words), he apologized for appearing arrogant and outlined several changes the company will be making in China.

This is the second time in recent months that Cook has taken the higher road. Last September, he acknowledged the failure of Apple Maps, a cartographic catastrophe so inaccurate it stranded several iPhone users in an Australian desert wasteland with no food or water for more than 24 hours.

The softer approach is a departure from that of Apple co-founder and longtime leader Steve Jobs, who was called egotistical as often as brilliant. When customers complained in 2010 that holding the iPhone at a certain angle obliterated reception, Jobs snapped “Just avoid holding it that way” before eventually, begrudgingly, apologizing and giving away free cases.

Apple’s most recent apology seems to be smart. China is Apple’s second biggest market today and, as Cook told state-run Xinhua news agency in January, he believes it will become its first. All the more reason to keep customers extremely happy.

THE PR VERDICT:  “C” (Distinctly OK) for Apple. While the apology was the right move, it came two weeks into a negative PR blitz. It will be interesting to see if Apple sales in China have been affected.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Markets change, and so must marketing strategies. Part of Apple’s early allure was that its groundbreaking technologies and higher pricetags created an air of exclusivity; the attitude that occasionally exuded from leadership contributed to the appeal. Today, however, the competitive landscape is much more crowded, and Apple can’t afford to alienate buyers in such fertile ground as China. An apology today helps pave the way for a bigger footprint tomorrow.

Apple and the Dark Art of PR

Background briefing  150x150 Apple and the Dark Art of PR

The PR verdict: “A” (PR Perfect) to Apple’s “person close to the matter”.

Sorry is sometimes the hardest word. That is presumably the view of Apple executive Scott Forstall, who was in the headlines for allegedly refusing to sign a public letter apologizing for the mess regarding Apple’s new mapping service. His departure, announced on Monday, coincided with Apple’s retail chief John Browett also packing his bags.

A big day at Apple, but officially the superstar firm was remarkably tight-lipped. Most publications had the firm declining to comment save for confirmation of the departures and plans for their replacements, while Forstall and Browett were both unavailable. But the mystery was how media reports managed to run to  several hundred words if neither side was talking?  It was the old PR friend, “a person familiar with the matter,” who, as always, was more than obliging.

The well-known background briefer informed the press on how, why, and what happened. Fortsall’s hasty exit apparently came after long-standing tension with other Apple executives, who claimed he was uncooperative and aggravating in boasting a close relationship with founder Steve Jobs. Matters came to a head when the mapping software ran into problems. Our friend, the person “familiar with the matter,” said the game was over and Forstall got his marching orders. A win for Apple PR and zero to Forstall.

The PR Verdict:  “A” (PR Perfect) to Apple’s “person close to the matter.” Such a helpfully talkative pal!

The PR Takeaway: There are multiple ways to skin a cat. The Apple fracas provides a timely reminder about the value of speaking “on background.” With Apple and the departing parties declining to comment, who was going to shape the story? Getting a message across is the task of any good PR, and using the broad-brush moniker of a “person close to the matter” gives almost unlimited opportunity to comment without lasting fingerprints. There is a reason, after all, why PR is called the “dark arts.”

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