Apple’s Unorthodox Crisis Management Approach

I knew Apple had a public-relations problem on its hands with iOS location tracking when I got the e-mail from my mum. “What about this thing with iPhone & iPad that Apple included that tracking system?” My mother is not a follower of technology news. 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 undeniably needed a response from Apple. The company couldn’t do what it usually does and just assume radio silence until the whole thing blows over. It needed some response to explain what was happening and why, to change the trajectory of the story.

Sound familiar? Sure. The same thing happened just last year with the iPhone 4’s “antennagate.”

Now, the standard business-practice rulebook on this sort of crisis management is clear: get out in front of it. Respond as quick as you can, and get your reply into the news cycle as the story is breaking. Big surprise: as with so much else, Apple doesn’t play corporate crises by the rulebook.

Consider what Steve Jobs said at Apple’s hastily-assembled iPhone 4 antenna press conference last year: “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 remains 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.

There’s a lot of pride at Apple. This is a company that prefers its products to not be thought of in terms of tech specs, but rather as “magical” technology that generates an emotional impact. That carefully cultivated mystique is 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.

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.

I’m trying not to judge Apple’s choice here. Apple’s been going against conventional wisdom for years, and its punishment has been a huge rise in sales, profit, and stock price. But certainly there are big risks when the company waits 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, media blitz aside, affected Apple customers deserve faster answers out of Cupertino when something is amiss.

But given the massive success of the iPhone 4 even after the so-called “antennagate” issue, it’s hard to see that Apple’s felt any need to change its approach to crisis management. It’s idiosyncratic, to be sure… but that’s Apple. Apple goes its own way. Even in a time of crisis.