or Three Lessons from Apple in How Not to Do PR
The 2011 media stink over Apple’s tracking of iPhone users’ location data teaches us three key lessons in public relations in the world of fast internet communications.
- Be nimble
- Have respect
- Display vision and strength
Journalists and bloggers have ranted at length about the rights and wrongs and privacy issues surrounding the recording of mobile users’ movements. I wish to draw some more universal PR lessons from this particular Apple story.
In 1860, the Pony Express became the fastest way to spread news across the United States: just ten days between the east and west coasts. Even 20 years ago, companies involved in potential scandals had breathing space to deliberate their response, before the next day’s or week’s newspaper was sent to print.
Now news spreads in milliseconds: time is of the proverbial essence.
It took Apple a week to respond to the original public accusation that their policies on recording personal location data were unethical and unclear – and there is evidence the company were well aware of the problem before then. Already by the second day, journalists were getting edgy:
“Still, the controversy has been magnified by Apple’s silence. For the second day, the company did not respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment,” muttered Miguel Heft and Kevin O’Brien in a New York Times article.
Meantime, US Congressmen jumped on the consumer privacy bandwagon, European governments started weighing in, journalists speculated about how, where and why the data was stored, lawyers reached for the phone and the scandal was quickly spread all over the world by ranting, raving bloggers and tweeters.
Instead of waiting a week, posting a bland Q&A on the Apple website and otherwise keeping schtum, Apple should have chosen a high-level figure – or Steve Jobs himself – to respond immediately and directly to the source of the accusations. That way, if the story went viral, at least their side would also be in the picture.
Taking too long to respond signifies a lack of awareness, lack of care, lack of efficiency, lack of forethought and preparedness. And it makes users and commentators edgy.
So lesson 1.01 in internet PR: be nimble and ready to respond.
Apple’s Q&A response to the location data controversy says:
2. Then why is everyone so concerned about this?
Providing mobile users with fast and accurate location information while preserving their security and privacy has raised some very complex technical issues which are hard to communicate in a soundbite. Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.”
Maybe it is true that users, bloggers and the media are confused about the location tracking issue. But nobody likes to feel silly. Nobody likes to be told they lack education or are unable to understand complex technical issues unless they are simplified into a soundbite.
In 21st-century PR, companies need to listen to their audience better than ever, empathize with their worries and respond in a way that puts them all on the same side – without treating them as children unable to understand what is going on.
Display vision and strength
Effective listening can turn potential public relations catastrophes into opportunities – if a company is quick and smart enough to take the initiative.
As crisis PR expert Michael Robinson suggested in an interview with Computerworld, if he were helping Apple deal with the tracking fallout, he would advise them to “grab control of the discussion by becoming a leader in consumer privacy and advocating privacy standards.”
While politicians, rivals, journalists and bloggers were fighting over the specific instance of Apple’s recording of iPhone location data, Apple could have moved from the defensive to the offensive position – recognizing consumer demand for clear privacy policies and information, and advocating strongly for this in all quarters.
“You need to seize control of the narrative, or you’re constantly in a defensive cycle,” says Robinson.
Lessons to Take Away
The principles of good public relations remain the same: I won’t bother to repeat the PR mantras. But the internet and social media have changed forever the way in which these principles can be applied.
As Apple’s location data boo-boo reminds us, speed, preparedness, leadership and the ability to listen and respond are more vital than ever for successful 21st-century PR.