Apple's unique brand of crisis management

Steve Jobs on stage during Apple's iPhone 4 antenna press conference.

I knew for certain that Apple had a public-relations problem on its hands with iOS location tracking when I got the e-mail from my mom:

What about this thing with iPhone & iPad that Apple included that tracking system?

My mother is not a follower of technology news. She lives in a retirement community out in the middle of the Arizona desert. If something like this story reaches her—and more troublingly, with a spin that Apple has included a “tracking system” on some of its iPhones and iPads—the story is in the water and is spreading far and wide.

At that point the story—no matter how fair or unfair, no matter how misguided and confused some of the coverage was—needed a response from Apple. Some response to explain what was happening and why, to change the trajectory of the story and protect the reputation of Apple and its products.

Sound familiar? Sure. The same thing happened just last year.

Reacting with care

Between the iPhone tracking saga and the iPhone 4 antenna debate, in less than a year we’ve seen two examples of how Apple deals with damage control. (There are other examples, too, such as the Foxconn suicides and the repeated assaults on Apple’s environmental record by Greenpeace, but let’s set those aside for the moment.)

There seems to be a commonly held set of beliefs about how corporations should behave in a crisis. Look no further than this Computerworld story in which a “crisis-management expert” named Michael Robinson criticizes Apple’s handling of the situation:

Apple seems to have dropped the ball in a big way in this case… This blunder makes no sense to me at all… We live in a world that’s measured in seconds. Companies grow and go away in that time. If it takes a week, it might as well take a month…. It just boggles the mind that they waited a week.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to discover that even when it comes to crises, Apple doesn’t behave like most corporations. Clearly the rulebook in this situation is that a company immediately responds, getting in front of the crisis with some counter-PR of its own. And yet, with both the tracking issue and the antenna controversy, Apple remained silent for several 24-hour news cycles before explaining itself.

Consider what Steve Jobs said at Apple’s hastily-assembled iPhone 4 antenna press conference.

We heard about [reception problems] 22 days ago and have been working our butts off. It’s not like we’ve had our heads in the sand for three months.

And here’s what he told All Things D’s Ina Fried on Wednesday:

We’re an engineering-driven company… When people accuse us of things, the first thing we want to do is find out the truth. That took a certain amount of time to track all of these things down. And the accusations were coming day by day. By the time we had figured this all out, it took a few days. Then writing it up and trying to make it intelligible when this is a very high-tech topic took a few days. And here we are less than a week later.

Apple’s philosophy, then, is not to release a vague statement and then stall while the company figures things out. Instead, the company prefers to remain silent until it can offer a thorough explanation and announce a solution. In both cases, the company also used its response to rope in its competitors, explaining that the issues involved were industry-wide, not limited just to Apple.

Let’s also keep in mind that Apple’s a proud company that prefers to keep technical details hidden from consumers and describe its products as “magical.” There’s a carefully cultivated mystique that is definitely part of Apple’s secret sauce. Having company executives declare in public that they’re not quite sure what’s going on, but by gum they’re going to get to the bottom of it, would work counter to that image.

Responding in detail

Consider the way Apple ultimately dealt with both these issues. The antenna issue generated a new version of iOS that recalibrated how bars of cellular signal are measured, a promise of free iPhone 4 cases to anyone who felt they needed one, a website full of videos of competitive products that also suffered from signal attenuation problems, and a tour of its top-secret wireless testing lab to show that it took antenna testing seriously.

The tracking issue generated a Q&A on location data that included a promise of future software updates to address the issue and a technical explanation about how and why Apple uses the data. In the phone call to Fried, Jobs and other Apple executives challenged the tech journalists of the world to investigate Apple’s competitors while crowing about Apple’s best-in-class approach to overall location privacy in iOS.

Apple’s approach to the Foxconn situation was similar, with the company creating an annual Supplier Responsibility report. And of course, the Greenpeace criticisms have been blunted by some changes in Apple’s manufacturing materials and the company’s inclusion of environmental responsibility information in the marketing material for all its products.

Would Apple be better off doing what most companies do, namely what experts like Michael Robinson suggest? It’s hard to say. Certainly there are big risks Apple incurs by waiting days or weeks to release information: a growing media furor, politicians trying to score points, and the like. There's also an argument to be made that Apple customers deserve faster answers out of Cupertino when something is amiss, rather than hearing nothing but radio silence until the company has crafted a strategic (and competitor-bashing) reply.

But given the massive success of the iPhone 4 even after the so-called “antennagate” issue, I’m not convinced that Apple’s been given any reason to believe that its approach to crisis management is wrong. It’s idiosyncratic, to be sure… but that’s Apple. Apple goes its own way. Even in a time of crisis.

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