The CEO of the world’s most valuable company sat on a stool in a sparsely decorated room with his hands clasped and one knee shaking up and down ever so slightly.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever done an interview in the office,” Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, admitted at the very beginning of an interview that aired Wednesday night with ABC’s David Muir about the tech company’s high-stakes legal dispute against the FBI. “Well,” Muir replied, “I know this is an important issue.”
The decision to give millions of Americans an unprecedented glimpse into Cook’s personal office, followed by the CEO’s forceful responses to one polarizing interview question after another, caps off what has been an unusual and extraordinary weeklong public relations push.
Apple, accustomed to promoting shiny products beloved by millions, is now desperately trying to promote a nuanced principle by staging an extremely controversial fight with the U.S. government. And for the first time in years, Apple seems anything but guaranteed to win.
The technology giant has refused a court order to assist the FBI by building custom software that could unlock an iPhone 5c belonging to one of the gunmen behind the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California last year.
Apple and Cook have argued it could set a “dangerous” precedent, which diminishes our the privacy we’ve come to expect from our devices.
Critics, of which there are many, argue Apple’s position does a disservice to the victims of the shooting and potentially makes citizens less safe by limiting just how much relevant data law authorities can access in difficult national security cases like this.
While many in the tech community have slowly stood behind Apple, the general public remains fiercely divided on the issue, according to recent surveys.
“This is a new frontier for Apple,” says Allen Adamson, former chairman of Landor Associates and a consultant to brands in volatile situations. “Before it was about what they did and how they did it, but this is the first time they are really leaning in to what they stand for.”
“The challenge,” he added, “is that this is a hugely polarizing issue. No matter which side Apple stands on, it’s going to upset large chunks of the population.”
Thinking different about PR
For years, Apple’s public relations machine deftly controlled the media by playing hard to get.
Early product reviews went to a select few influential technology publications; financial and strategy announcements were leaked to a select few others. Requests for comments and interviews vanished into a wasteland of “no comments” or rejection. Employee leaks to the media were investigated and punished.
Now, however, Apple has been forced to be more outspoken in public by the FBI.
Apple had previously asked the FBI to issue its request for a tool to crack the data on the shooter’s iPhone “under seal,” but the FBI decided to make it public, according to The New York Times. Cook later revealed in the ABC interview that Apple first learned about the court filing compelling its cooperation from the media.
The upshot: the FBI appears to have picked the battleground for a public dispute. Apple made the calculated decision that acquiescing without a fight would be worse in the longterm for the public, or at the very least for its own public image.
Last Wednesday, Cook released a rare open letter to customers announcing Apple’s decision to decline the court order to help the FBI crack the shooter’s iPhone.
Since then, Apple has frantically held multiple conference calls with reporters and emailed background details to help guide coverage of the ongoing debate, according to members of the media we’ve spoken with. The company has also leaked an email from the CEO to Apple staff defending its stance, published a fact sheet online for customers and now opened up the heart of its corporate headquarters to a national TV network.
If that’s not enough, a top Apple exec will appear before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on Monday to make the company’s case and likely push for Congress — and by extension the public — to weigh in.
All of this marks a striking departure for Apple, which is nearly as well known for its relentless secrecy as for the captivating gadgets it releases.
Apple’s toughest PR battles
While it is unusual to see Apple doing so much media outreach, it is not unprecedented.
Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies and a longtime Apple observer, likens the company’s posturing here to the difficult days of 2010 when it was faced with an outcry from consumers about issues with the newly released iPhone 4’s antenna.
In an interview with Mashable, Bajarin recalled the unprecedented moment when he and 10-12 other members of the media were invited “into the bowels of Apple” to see where the phone was being tested for defects. Steve Jobs, Apple’s late CEO and cofounder, also held a press conference to address the issue.
The lesson Apple learned, according to Bajarin: “If there is a public opinion that is negative, the way you deal with it is get out there with the information and the facts and begin getting the people to understand why they are doing it.”
Apple took a similar approach to the blowback it faced over its questionable supply chain working conditions, perhaps the most defining moral issue it has faced, prior to the latest dispute with the FBI.
To ease concerns, Apple gave ABC (sound familiar?) exclusive access to one of its manufacturing plants in China and showed more transparency by releasing regular supplier responsibility reports. Cook, unlike his predecessor, also began making more frequent trips to and appearances in China to show Apple’s commitment there.
No easy bug to fix
Unlike with the antenna issue and the supply chain working conditions, Apple cannot simply issue a fix, throw out some free cases, or put out a directive and some reports to end the contentious debate and potential backlash from its fight with the FBI.
The bet, according to marketing and technology experts we spoke with, is that Apple may lose more in the longterm if it isn’t seen as a staunch defender of user privacy at a time when consumers are placing more and more sensitive personal information on smartphones, tablets and computers.
Trust, even more than high-resolution cameras and fast processors, may be the top product feature of the future.
“In the long-run, this will be beneficial to the Apple brand, but in the short-term it’s going to be choppy waters,” says Adamson, the branding consultant.
Apple and Cook, for their part, appear to be aware of this.
During his interview this week with ABC, Cook was asked if he was aware of polls from the Pew Research Center and Reuters showing Americans to be firmly divided about whether to support Apple.
“This is not about a poll. This is about the future,” Cook responded. “What I have seen is as people understand what is at stake here, an increasing number support us.”
Later in the interview, he added: “Some things are right and some things are hard and somethings are both. This is one of those.”
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