Oh How the Mighty Have Fallen

Pardon me if I’m a week behind the times but I was out last week. But even being away from my desk for a few days didn’t shield me from the fiasco that Apple has been enduring. For the situation to be referred to as a “Toyota-style PR crisis for Apple sure says a mouthful. By now everyone has heard about the little glitch that the iPhone 4 is suffering from. Even Consumer Reports jumped on the bandwagon and said it couldn’t recommend the iPhone 4 after giving it a positive rating initially.

Now let’s take a step back for a minute. Apple has one of the strongest brands in the world. Known for quality and innovative products, the company has always been more user-friendly than just about another other tech company. Yet somehow this killer new product has fallen on hard times (from a PR perspective, sales seem to be holding up for now) due to a technical error with the antenna. In reading the coverage it seems that more people are interested in the PR fiasco than the actual error, probably because Apple has handled the situation so poorly. As my noted colleague discussed, is the hype around the problem bigger than the problem itself? So what does this Fortune 500 company, with one of the strongest brands in the world, do to manage this crisis?

They tell customers to hold the phone differently.

What do users say? Use duct tape Not exactly rocket science here but you get the picture.

What’s most amazing to me, a PR professional that worked at Apple in the 1990’s, is how badly Apple has handled this crisis. Most of the PR experts who have weighed in on this one agree that there are some very basic principles you follow in a crisis situation like this one—acknowledge the problem, ensure consumer trust by saying the issue is being examined and addressed, craft your story and stick to it.

Many PR pros who focus on crisis management have weighed in on how poorly Apple has handled this one:

Instead of addressing the problem and offering to find a solution like Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol tampering in the early 1980s, Apple has come off more like Toyota and BP during their recent reputation-annihilating incidents. “The biggest mistake (Apple) made is they keep changing their story,” said Ira Kalb, professor of marketing at USC Marshall School of Business. CNET

After users reported problems with signal strength and dropped calls when they touched the lower-left portion of the phone, however, Apple suggested that consumers hold the phone differently or use one of many bumpers to insulate the antenna. It also said that all phones suffered from similar problems when they were cradled a certain way. These comments were widely laughed at in gadget blogs. New York Times

To say it isn’t good to be mentioned in the same breath as BP and Toyota would be an understatement.

So my question is…how could Apple have made such a big mistake in how they’ve handled this? And what impact will this have on the Apple brand? Granted, sometimes you can’t control the story the way you’d like to but Apple really blew this one. Apple has had product issues in the past yet as philosopher Edmund Burke said “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Guess Apple didn’t study its own history. Or is Apple getting a little too big and too arrogant for its own good?

So what communication crisis have you had to manage? Any tips for readers out there?

Rob Goodman

Author: Rob Goodman

Rob Goodman is a communications professional with more than 27 years of experience in public relations, marketing and content creation.