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.

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.”

To read more, click here.

What’s your opinion of this PR tactic? Give us your PR Verdict!

Google and Larry’s Laryngitis

 Google and Larrys Laryngitis

The PR Verdict: The PR Verdict: “D” (It’s a Dud) for Google. (Pictured: Google CEO Larry Page.)

Larry Page, Google’s CEO, regrets he is unable to lunch today. And not just today, it seems, but all the way into mid July. The reason? Larry has “lost his voice” and “can’t do any public speaking engagements for the time being,” says Google. That includes the second quarter earnings conference in three weeks’ time. His voice is gone, and it isn’t coming back anytime soon.

The announcement has spooked investors. In an industry that endlessly speculated about the on again, off again health of Steve Jobs at Apple, this sort of news gets the rumor mill activated. Google says it is business as usual and that Page is “OK”  and continuing to run the company. “He’s running all the strategy business decisions and all that,” reassures Google.

Not all investors buy it. JP Morgan described the announcement as ”odd,” and others are wondering. One told the Wall Street Journal that the decision to miss an earning call was “highly unusual.” He said, “It’s hard to imagine a CEO missing that much stuff and not having a serious problem,” echoing what could become a rumbling chorus.

The PR Verdict: “D” (It’s a Dud) for Google. Who knows what the real situation is, but this explanation doesn’t reassure the market. Already suspicion is growing that Google is being less than frank.

PR Takeaway: Don’t over-complicate. Let’s face it, losing your voice doesn’t last three weeks. If Page can’t speak at earnings in three weeks’ time, it’s not a bad idea to flag it beforehand–but why not suggest that he’s having a minor medical procedure/treatment that will put him out of action for a fixed period? Use calming words to minimize the fuss and reinforce that it’s not market moving and material. Something is up, and now Google has more explaining to do. It might have been easier to have been straightforward from the start.

Should Google have anticipated investor worries, or is this a case of the truth just not being good enough these days? Give us your PR Verdict, below.