Gini Dietrich

Crisis Communications Lessons from the FBI and Apple

By: Gini Dietrich | March 17, 2016 | 
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Crisis Communications FBI AppleIn 1762, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote Of the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right, in which he theorized that individuals need to give up some right to privacy in order to establish a political community and civil society.

Of course, back then, there were no iPhones and data security issues went as far as the person who could get their hands on physical documents. As a society, we now put a lot of trust in the hands of the technology companies giving us the tools we use everyday. The issues addressed in the social contract has evolved since the days of the Enlightenment.

Privacy versus Security

In the ongoing battle between the FBI and Apple, government’s argument is this: We must surrender a little bit of privacy if we want security. This seems simple enough. The problem is, it’s not. It can’t be that absolute, and it certainly can’t be a sweeping generalization.

In this case, the FBI isn’t just asking for a simple, one-time use tool.

In his public letter, Tim Cook writes:

The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.

This issue isn’t as simple, nor is it a new conversation. In fact, a team of researchers published a paper last year titled “Keys Under Doormats,” which goes into detail about the insecurities created by mandating government access to all data and communications.

The Real Battle in the Public Arena

This case isn’t just about privacy versus security. It’s a public relations maneuver by the FBI, and Apple is in the middle of one of its biggest public relations battles. It’s not the first one, but it’s the first of its kind. In the past, Apple has been very calculating in the way it handles communication with the media.

They play hard to get.

Only a select few influential technology publications have access to early product reviews. Requests for comments and interviews vanished into a wasteland of “no comments” or rejection.

Because the FBI has taken this battle to the public arena, Apple is more outspoken than normal for them. It is rare, yes, but it’s not unprecedented. In 2010, Apple was faced with an outcry from consumers about the iPhone 4 antenna. It’s also dealt with public relations issues related to its supply chain.

According to Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies, the lesson Apple learned from these instances was,

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.

It boils down to transparency, and in this instance, Apple is making the right moves with the rare open letter from Tim Cook, and the multiple calls with journalist. They’re doing their part in educating the public, and defending their decision.

Who’s Leading the Conversation?

If you were to do a Google search about this right now, the leading stories wouldn’t be from Apple. It wouldn’t be social media posts from Apple executives. In fact, since the open letter, Apple has not made a single public announcement.

On the other side of the arena, neither has the FBI.

The conversation is now being led by the public and the media.

Has the decision of Apple to stay silent and let their customers speak up for them created positive sentiment?

Some would argue yes.

Of course, polls and surveys tell us the public is divided when it comes to this issue. There is no clear winner. Apple can’t simply fix an antenna and release an update to the software to win this PR battle.

Lessons for Crisis Communications

How can Apple can get away with saying so little publicly in such a heated battle with legal implications? They’re letting their customers, other security experts, and the media lead the sentiment.

While there is only one company like Apple—and no other can get away with handling crisis communications at the same level—there are a few takeaways you can apply to your crisis model:

  • The Apple brand is well-established. They’ve set clear expectations for communications with their customers. Heck, they didn’t even have a presence on Twitter until @AppleSupport came alive last week.
  • They see the big picture, instead of focusing on the current battle (this is something that Lands’ End, Gap, and even Susan G. Komen could learn). It’s going to be choppy waters for Apple for the foreseeable future. Their stance, however, is bigger than this particular case. They’re focusing their strategy on long-term implications.
  • Their open letter stated the facts, provided their reasoning, and then they walked away. Often times the very first thing we want to do when someone says anything negative about us online is defend ourselves. Apple didn’t stoke the fire by responding this way.
  • They weighed the pros and cons of an open letter, considered the strategic implications, got their communications and legal teams involved (this is important because this rarely happens), though through every possible scenario, and stood their ground.
  • Transparency is key. Agree with their stance or not, you can see how they’ve handled it has allowed people insight an organization that is normally tight-lipped. 

Tim Cook said it best,

Some things are right and some things are hard and somethings are both. This is one of those.

A version of this first appeared on the Zignal Labs blog, where I write twice each month.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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7 Comments on "Crisis Communications Lessons from the FBI and Apple"

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Bill Smith
3 months 12 days ago

This battle is far from over from a PR perspective. What I found interesting, companies that are ordinarily business rivals coming to Apple’s defence in the court of public opinion, well, save for Microsoft. This issue has global implications because it won’t just apply to American iPhones.

Paula Kiger
3 months 12 days ago

Really good points. Transparency is so often the key, if handled well.

Susan Cellura
3 months 11 days ago
“*Their open letter stated the facts*, provided their reasoning, and then they walked away. Often times the very first thing we want to do when someone says anything negative about us online is defend ourselves. Apple didn’t stoke the fire by responding this way.” When working for a corporation, this was one of the ways we coached plant managers to handle their first interaction with the media if there was an explosion, fire, etc. Let them know if employees are safe, the incident is ____, it is being investigated, etc., and we’ll be back in a (state time period) with… Read more »
Shonali Burke
3 months 8 days ago
I actually think Apple said quite a bit, via their open letter. And then, as you point out, they did exactly what they should… and let their customers, fans, and pretty much anyone with an interest in security and privacy speak up (pro or con). They needed to do this in this situation, because, as you said, it’s not just an antenna that needs to be fixed… it is really a matter of national and international significance. Else I think they would have continued being the Grand Poobah of Technology and do what they usually do – keep quiet and… Read more »
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