Apple’s Secret PR Sauce

An Australian economics professor professes to know the secret PR sauce that led to the “implausible” disappearance of Apple’s biggest crisis in recent years: “AntennaGate.” Surely you remember the hyperbolic iPhone 4 launch and the ensuing issues from a misbehaving antenna. (Thank goodness for duct tape.)

In a fresh re-hash of the incident in Harvard Business Review (from a PR lens),  Joshua Gans claims that Apple purposely ignored “5 key rules ingrained in the public relations playbook” when it addressed this mini-turned-maxi crisis.

“Jobs & co. did none of these — and that is why he succeeded in capturing the higher ground:”

  • Apologize and take full responsibility.
  • Don’t create expectations with a media event.
  • Announce the give away first.
  • Avoid specific comparisons with competitors.
  • Don’t air your industry’s dark secrets.

Prof. Gans concludes his thesis by saying:

“Apple broke all five rules in their management of AntennaGate — indeed, they broke a sixth and actually referred to the issue as “AntennaGate” — and drew the ire of public relations experts. Their handling of the situation worked. The same option was available to any of its competitors and none of them seized the opportunity. They now look like fools. While I’d like to say that Apple’s response to AntennaGate changed public relations forever, BP’s handling of the oil spill just a few weeks later tells us that wasn’t the case.”

As someone who’s actually practiced PR and crisis management, I’m not sure what playbook these plays are coming from, but, IMHO, the two factors that led to the quick resolution of this unforeseen crisis are missing from the above list.

First, Apple and its CEO spent years building a well of “reputation capital” from which it could (and did) draw when faced with tough times. Also, Mr. Jobs came off looking earnest in his rigorous defense of his most esteemed product, albeit admittedly without all the facts in hand. (When he finally did have the facts, the Apple engineer responsible for the screw-up got shit-canned.)

The second, and probably bigger factor that led to the relatively quick erasure of this incident from the collective public consciousness has to do with the 24/7 news cycle and a short-memoried public. In a crisis, and especially in today’s relentless media environment, the passage of time is the greatest heeler of all.

Even the perpetrators of the biggest crisis of our generation — BP — has recouped much of its lost stock price since the oil spill, and today is back to business as usual with that egregious catastrophe mostly faded in the public’s rear view mirror.

Still, I enjoyed reading Prof. Gans’s Monday morning assessment of how Apple handled this rare product (versus health) crisis in its midst. I just don’t buy into the notion that the PR decisions made during those frenzied days were made with as much forethought as the professor insinuates. Apple PR is smart…just not that smart.