We recently posted on the biggest takeaways from 9to5Mac’s extensive inside look at Apple’s media relations strategy.
The piece provided a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the company’s one-of-a-kind culture, and as a follow-up we were fortunate enough to speak with a source close to Apple’s international PR team for an insider’s take on the story…and more.
What did you think of the 9to5Mac piece?
Nothing surprised me; the only thing I would object to is the part about shredding the strategic “white books” before events. They were referring to “At a glance” docs, which are simply printouts. PR receives them a few days before each event and hands them back to management when it’s over.
And the part about PR doubling as bodyguards?
Yes, I did see a PR blocking a couple of photographers who were trying to take pictures of Steve Jobs at one event.
How did the Jobs-to-Cook transition affect internal strategy?
At the beginning it was not noticeable at all, but people saw that Cook seemed far more proactive on sustainability, CSR, workers’ rights in China, etc. In terms of general strategy, though, nothing changed.
How closely does the international organization work with the American PR team?
There is a firewall between the US and international teams, but there were occasional meetings with [former Apple PR director] Katie Cotton. The article hints that she was pushed out, and that’s probably true.
She was molded in Jobs’ image; she once said, “I’m so glad we didn’t jump on the social media train.” She was simply a gatekeeper between Apple and the journalists.
How would you describe the general media relations strategy?
You have to be able to control the journalist and prevent them from asking really hard questions.
The best example may be the clip in which Benjamin Cohen attempts to ask Phil Schiller some relevant questions about how you need iTunes to use the iPhone, and they break off the interview.
If you’d invited a journalist like that to an event, you’d probably lose your job because of your inability to control him. In some ways, your job is to make things both as easy and as difficult as possible for journalists.
What about the guide books for reviewers?
You aren’t allowed to send a product without a reviewer’s guide. It’s a smart way to get the message out to journalists who don’t have a lot of time.
[Screenshot from a guide to the Aperture 3]
There are other strange management tics. For example, if you fill out your time sheet and aren’t 100% consistent with your punctuation, someone will cc your manager and write that you “lack attention to detail.”
How does the distribution/attribution of quotes work?
If a writer/blogger can be trusted, you can give them a bit more info than you’d give most. But if Apple releases an official statement about something, PR can’t email it directly to a journalist.
On “Antenna-gate,” for instance: Jobs made a comment, but PR couldn’t email that comment to any journalists – they had to direct them to an article in a respectable paper including the quote despite the fact that it was the very same quote.
They prefer for journalists to see quotes published in a paper rather than shared by a spokesperson. I have no idea why.
What are the priorities in terms of media placements?
Everything shifted to lifestyle media: a picture of a new iPhone in Cosmopolitan is seen as far better than a good review on a tech site. It is more important to be able to send good-looking visuals than to get relevant editorial coverage.
Why? Because Cupertino says so. They never explain it.
How are press contacts organized?
People within the PR department nominate individual journalists who are invited to press events and product briefings, though the part about fake twitter accounts was news to me.
If the iPhone launches on a Friday, you bring in 10-20 of these favored contacts on that day and then start to do briefings with lifestyle media, bloggers, etc. the following week.
Sometimes PR is asked to blacklist someone who wrote something negative, which is a very stupid idea — if someone is complaining about your company, you should pay more attention to them. But that never happens.
The whole atmosphere is management by fear. Everyone tries to keep the PR team out of the loop, because if the team catches wind of an event like a keynote speech involving an Apple employee, they will try to cancel it. People are afraid that someone in attendance might tweet or Facebook the employee’s image and write “X is promoting iOS”. You don’t want that to happen, because there are to be no pictures of Apple people whatsoever — only the products.
Have you witnessed other cases of “blacklisting?”
Yes. Four or five of the biggest book publishers were on hand for the initial iPad release. The day before the event, one of the CEOs started to talk about it and, at the keynote, his name was omitted from the slide. It just disappeared.
How extreme are the silos?
Everything is on a need-to-know basis. Quite a few times, things happen in the US and nobody internationally has any idea what is going on. For big events, you hear rumors but don’t get any official info until the day of.
Around the world, the general PR strategy is to localize press releases and decline comment on everything.
What’s an example?
When Apple launches a new product, they have high-res pics on the website for press — but they have tons of additional images that they hold for “special” journalists, and sometimes the PR team has to beg managers for them. Also: if the special journalist doesn’t want a given pic, you still can’t give it to anyone else.
Journalists are discouraged from writing “A source at Apple says”. On big issues, you tell them that they cannot attribute any statements to company spokespeople, and in many cases they end up not running the story at all since they can’t tie the quote to someone at the company.
What was your impression of Katie Cotton?
She was humorless and always bored.
I think she couldn’t adapt to the new management style. It’s difficult to change when you’re feared by the press, because it takes people a while to trust you.
Here’s an example of her style: she met with the international PR team, and staffers had to rehearse the questions they were going to ask her as they couldn’t ask anything that could be perceived as negative. Managers went through the group and assigned specific questions to individual reps.
Why did she stay for three years after Jobs died?
It took a while for the company to find its own voice under Cook — the keynotes were basically copy and paste jobs, though now they’re adding a bit more humor and lightening things up.
No one wanted to rock the boat after Jobs died. After a while, though, it became more apparent that the message needed to change because the media has long seen Apple as the most arrogant company in the world. If they didn’t make great products, no one would cover them.
The fact that Tim Cook invited the labor association in China to do unannounced audits in the FoxConn factories shows that he’s trying to put a friendlier face on Apple — and that face was not Cotton. She was the right person at one time, but then things changed.
Officially, she wanted to spend more time with her kids. But she left the day before Apple’s keynote at WWDC, which is a very important event for Apple. This implies that she did not leave voluntarily.
What about Jay Carney as her replacement?
Why not? If you look at the issues Cook focuses on, he needs someone like Carney who can see things from a more international perspective.
What is your general impression of the Apple PR experience?
The launches are very exciting.
But after a while you start thinking, “What the hell am I doing? This isn’t PR. This is something else.”