Photo: REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Quick, name a technology company with a REALLY good reputation?Apple? Google? Facebook?
Nope. Nah. Sorry.
If you’re on the same page as former Apple bigwig Jean-Louis Gassée, the company that should have jumped to mind first is Microsoft.
In fact, Gassée says his old firm should try harder to emulate Microsoft’s public relations tactics.
Last week, Apple marketing boss Phil Schiller reached out ot a bunch of big business publications to trash Android and Samsung the night before Samsung launched its new flagship phone, the Galaxy S4.
Schiller got a lot of criticism for doing this. This happened for two reasons:
- Schiller got a crucial fact wrong about which version of Android the S4 would use.
- Apple bloggers said he made Apple sound weak and defensive.
Now, Gassée, the former president of Apple Products, is getting a lot of attention for a blog post he wrote explaining how Apple could do better talking to the press.
In it, Gassée writes “Apple has lost control of the narrative; the company has let others define its story.”
His solution: Apple PR should operate more like Microsoft PR.
He thinks Apple needs to hire an outside PR firm – “hired media assassins” – and use it for “attacking competitors, pointing to their weaknesses, and trumpeting [Apple’s] achievements.”
He says that Microsoft did this to great effect back in the day, working with Waggener Edstrom.
Apple has lost control of the narrative; the company has let others define its story. This is a war of words and Apple is proving to be inept at verbal warfare.
In another of his sharply worded analyses titled Ceding the Crown, John Gruber makes the same point, although from a different angle:
The desire for the “Oh, how the mighty Apple has fallen” narrative is so strong that the narrative is simply being stated as fact, evidence to the contrary be damned. It’s reported as true simply because they want it to be true. They’re declaring “The King is dead; long live the King” not because the king has actually died or abdicated the throne, but because they’re bored with the king and want to write a new coronation story.
I agree with the perception, but blaming the media rarely produces results, we shouldn’t point our criticism in the wrong direction. The media have their priorities, which more often than not veer in the direction of entertainment passed as fair and balanced information (see Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman). If Apple won’t feed them an interesting, captivating story, they’ll find it elsewhere, even in rumours and senseless hand-wringing.
Attacking competitors, pointing to their weaknesses, and trumpeting one’s achievements is better done by hired media assassins. A company, directly or through a PR firm, engages oft-quoted consultants who provide the required third-party stats, barbs, and encomiums. This isn’t theorizing, I once was a director at a company, one of many, that used such an arrangement to good effect.
A brief anecdote: When Microsoft was Microsoft, Waggener Edstrom, the company’s PR powerhouse, was an exemplary propagandist. I distinctly remember a journalist from a white-shoe East Coast business publication coming to my office more than 20 years ago, asking very pointed questions. I asked my own questions in return and realised that the individual didn’t quite know the meaning of certain terms that he was throwing around. A bit of hectoring and cajoling, and the individual finally admitted that the questions were talking points provided by the Seattle PR firm. A few years later, I got a comminatory phone call from one of the firm’s founders. My offence? I had made an unflattering quip about Microsoft when it was having legal troubles with Apple (the IP battle that was later settled as part of the 1997 “investment” in Apple and Steve Jobs). PR firms have long memories and sharp knives.
The approach may seem cynical, but it’s convenient and effective. The PR firm maintains a net (and that’s the right word) of relationships with the media and their pilot fish. If it has the talent of a Waggener Edstrom, it provides sound strategic advice, position papers, talking points, and freeze-dried one-liners.
Furthermore, a PR firm has the power of providing access. I once asked a journalist friend how his respected newspaper could have allowed one of its writers to publish a fellacious piece that described, in dulcet tones, a worldwide Microsoft R&D tour by the company’s missus dominicus. “Access, Jean-Louis, access. That’s the price you pay to get the next Ballmer interview…”
Today, look at the truly admirable job Frank Shaw does for Microsoft. Always on Twitter, frequently writing learned and assertive pieces for the company’s official blog. By the way, where’s Apple’s blog?
The popular notion is that Apple rose to the top without these tools and tactics, but that’s not entirely true. Dear Leader was a one-man propagandastaffel, maintaining his own small network of trusted friends in the media. Jobs also managed to get exemptions from good-behaviour rules, exemptions that seem to have expired with him…
Before leaving us, Jobs famously admonished “left-behind” Apple execs to think for themselves instead of trying to guess what he would have done. Perhaps it’s time for senior execs to rethink the kind of control they want to exercise on what others say about Apple. Either stay the old course and try to let the numbers do the talking, or go out and really fight the war of words. Last week’s misstep didn’t belong to either approach.
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