The late Steve Jobs acquired a reputation as a PR genius. His PR acumen helped Apple become one of the marquee brands of the 21st century. Jobs was a master at storytelling and building suspense in presentations. He consistently excited customers about Apple’s impending product releases, even for its products that weren’t truly must-have devices. Apple’s product introductions became show-biz-like events.
Some PR and business pundits predicted that Apple’s high-flying PR machine would falter without Jobs, who died from pancreas cancer in 2011.
But many argue that Apple’s PR continues to perform even better under CEO Tim Cook. Cook continued to employ some of the same PR tricks as Jobs. Not long after taking the leadership role, Cook faced a potentially debilitating PR crisis: media reports of poor working conditions at Foxconn, a Chinese supplier. When the New York Times published the story In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad, other media outlets quickly followed with similar negative articles.
Countering Negative Media Coverage
Cook traveled to China to investigate. But he wasn’t available to speak to journalists and the company didn’t issue any formal statements, notes Lou Hoffman of the Hoffman Agency in his Ishmael’s Corner blog. Instead, Apple hired a photographer to take photos of Cook talking to Foxconn workers and distributed two photos to the media.
Media outlets, even when publishing negative stories, ran a photograph of a confident Cook mingling with smiling Foxconn workers. The company predicted – correctly – that photographs of Cook would counter negative news articles. Wire services like Bloomberg, Reuters and AFP attributed the photos to Apple, but many publications reusing content from wire services did not.
“Mr. Cook took the page right out of the Steve Jobs playbook called “Scarcity,'” Hoffman says.
Jobs Return to America
Another incident: When President Trump attacked companies for building products overseas Apple responded proactively by revealing plans to invest in an advanced manufacturing plant in the U.S. Instead of releasing a news announcement, Apple granted CNBC’s Jim Cramer an exclusive that included exclusive access to Cook.
The CNBC story prompted other major media outlets to cover the announcement. With zero access to Cook or other Apple executives and no news release from Apple, journalists had to write stories based on the narrative Apple provided CNBC, Hoffman notes.
Apple released specifics of the $350 billion plan last January, causing another spike in news coverage and preventing any tirades from Trump.
“Mr. Jobs could not have played this better,” Hoffman says.
The iPhone X Release
When releasing its iPhone X last year, Apple granted YouTube influencers first looks at the new iPhone. Although mainstream journalists might have felt slighted, the strategy succeeded in creating favorable early impressions.
Reviewers at tech publications may argue that they’re more qualified to analyze the technical features of new iPhones. That’s exactly what Apple didn’t want. It wanted reviewers to focus on the fun features of the device, writes technology expert Matt Alexander. The company didn’t desire reports on product specs and technical capabilities.
Giving the iPhones to YouTube influencers accomplished that goal, as they praised the device and displayed its features. It also assured that the new iPhone features would be shown in video, making them more exciting and more easily understood.
Bottom Line: Apple has retained its PR expertise following the passing of Steve Jobs. Like Jobs, CEO Tim Cook has proven himself a shrewd manipulator of media coverage. PR pros probably hope to learn from Apple’s example, but few can hope to emulate the success of the company, one of the world’s most popular brands.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.