Crisis management expert pans Apple's handling of iOS location issue

Apple’s explanation about how and why iPhones track users’ locations was too late, too little, a crisis communications expert said Thursday.

“For a company that prides itself on knowing what consumers want and what they think, Apple seems to have dropped the ball in a big way in this case,” said Michael Robinson, a senior vice president with Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington, D.C. firm that helps companies deal with public relations emergencies.

“Privacy is at the core of what people want,” said Robinson. “It’s a fundamental concern. For Apple to misunderstand that was surprising. This blunder makes no sense to me at all.”

On Wednesday, Apple responded to growing concerns over the apparent tracking of iPhone and 3G iPad users’ movements that began last week when British researchers reported that iOS concealed an unencrypted file containing thousands of location data entries going back almost a year. The unsecured file was also backed up on users’ PCs and Macs during synchronization.

In the intervening days, members of Congress have asked Apple to explain the practice, and at least one lawsuit has been filed in federal court demanding that the company cease and desist.

Apple denied it tracked users. “Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone,” the company said in a statement released Wednesday. “Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.”

Robinson said Apple made several mistakes, not least of which was taking a week to publicly address the issue.

“We live in a world that’s measured in seconds,” said Robinson, who said that a week was far too long. “Companies grow and go away in that time. If it takes a week, it might as well take a month.”

By letting a week pass without answering questions or explaining why the unencrypted file was on iPhones and iPads, Apple let others fill the news vacuum, never a good move for a company under fire.

“In a week’s time, Congress of all people got involved,” said Robinson, referring to Congressional scrutiny that kicked off the same day researchers reported on tracking. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who chairs a new Senate privacy panel, has already scheduled a hearing for May 10, and asked Apple and Google to testify.

“If there’s enough time for Congress and state attorneys general to get involved, for class-action lawyers to file litigation, [Apple] had the time,” Robinson said. “It just boggles the mind that they waited a week.”

In an interview Apple CEO Steve Jobs did with Ina Fried of the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital blog—he said that Apple was “an engineering-driven company” and needed several days to investigate the complaints, then craft a statement that made the subject “intelligible” to customers.

Robinson wasn’t buying the delay.

“Here’s Steve Jobs … there isn’t a reporter in America that won’t talk to you,” Robinson said. “I can guarantee that if Jobs called any reporter, they’d take the call. It’s not like they were without means of getting the message out. And if you’re not filling that news vacuum, Congress is going to do it for you. You need to seize control of the narrative, or you’re constantly in a defensive cycle.”

Robinson also criticized some of the language in Apple’s statement, singling out the sentence, “Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.”

“That speaks to an arrogance,” Robinson said. “It’s always a good idea to educate, but to suggest that people didn’t get it right when there could have been more disclosure on Apple’s part is not a way to win the hearts and minds of consumers.”

Although he gave Apple a passing grade—“if we’re grading this pass/fail,” Robinson said—he had advice for the company.

“This is in its nascent stage, it will be going on for a long, long time,” said Robinson. “But Apple can turn this adversity into opportunity. They’ve done that before.”

If Robinson were helping Apple deal with the tracking brouhaha, he would advise the company to grab control of the discussion by becoming a leader in consumer privacy and advocating privacy standards.

“Look for a way to demonstrate your leadership,” he urged Apple. “Say, ‘As a leader, we recommend that consumers want X, Y and Z.’ Once people are looking forward, not backward, it will remind people how smart they are in connecting to consumers.”

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