Apple’s Death Wish for the Rumour
It’s impossible to avoid using the term “post Jobs-era” but this week has proved more than any that with Tim Cook at the helm Apple is a changing company, and I believe changing for the better.
It’s no secret, Steve Jobs despised journalists unless of course he needed their help. As Apple grew, working with the press became less of a priority. Apple’s publicity is a self-perpetuating machine fed by hundreds upon hundreds of blogs posting emphatically about the latest Apple product announcement. Apple’s requirement for the press has diminished yet the media interest has grown. Anyone who has ever wanted to or attempted to contact an Apple PR representative knows the struggle required to get a response, in the majority cases you simply won’t get one.
The strategy of Apple’s PR team is to keep the feed of information as tightly scripted as possible, even when vice presidents are given an interview with a journalist they must stay on topic—that’s both the journalist and Apple VP (remember this Phil Schiller and Ben Cohen interview?). When the information isn’t coming directly from Apple then expectations are bound to get blown out of proportion and that’s a dangerous game.
Apple spends its time playing an expectations game, overblown expectations and seemingly under-performing products do not make a good mix. For this reason it has been Apple’s intention to slow the flow of rumours, or at least influence the direction of the stream.
I should note at this point that I speak from no inside knowledge of how Apple operates its PR department, I can only work on my half decade or so of encounters with the PR team here in London and sometimes in the US and many years of tracking thousands of rumours.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Apple began to influence the flow of rumours, it’s entirely possible that such activity occurred in the pre-Jobs era but it’s difficult to see the evidence of it. Certainly in recent years Apple’s preferred publication of choice for planned leaks has been the Wall Street Journal. Anyone who has read Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs will realise the friendship that he and Walt Mossberg had and of course Mossberg is the principle technology columnist at the WSJ and has been since 1991. Mossberg is actually rarely the one to receive the controlled leak, reasons as to why I’m unsure of.
John Martellaro over at The Mac Observer has a good article on these controlled leaks and speaks from the position of a former senior marketing manager at Apple. Martellaro uses the great example of a controlled leak that occurred in early 2010 ahead of the iPad launch. In the run up to the launch rumours were out of control but also off the mark, the WSJ article helped contain expectation and also pushed some falsities to throw off competitors.
Whilst generally this is all speculation and could be wrong if it is indeed correct then such manipulation of the media to help control the delivery of a message or to throw off competitors can in the long run be problematic, particularly if people begin picking up on the behaviour. Let’s assume that the WSJ is Apple’s desired choice of leak, if the Journal runs too many stories that are off the mark people will no longer trust it and the leaks will become ineffective or on the other hand if it becomes too accurate then everything printed will be treated as fact. This creates a problem in the controlling of the message, I largely believe that Apple leaks to a number of reputable publications, some without their knowledge to help contain expectation.
But recently Apple has begun taking a more blatant line, Jim Dalrymple of The Loop and to a lesser extent John Gruber of Daring Fireball have gained such strong reputations for solid Apple sources that their word is regularly taken as gospel. Dalrymple’s trademark “Yep” to confirm details without actually confirming them is becoming more and more common, but so are his immediate shooting downs of rumours that are off the mark.
Take for example the rumours that circulated in early February of an “unusual” event that was purportedly due to take place at some point later in the month, within hours Dalrymple had weighed in to kill the stream of false rumour. Whether these rumours referred to the secret Mountain Lion briefings or not is a matter of debate, I’d bet not and it was just a case of some easy page views.
This week though Apple showed that it had a new tactic up its sleeve and this tactic really does have a death wish for the rumour. On Thursday morning at 8:31 AM Pacific Time an embargo lifted on the details of Apple’s latest major update to OS X. A carefully selected number of blogs immediately published their articles to the shock and dismay of onlookers. Since Lion had only launch seven months beforehand it seemed incomprehensible that Apple was planning another major OS update, but even more remarkable was that not a single rumour of this operating system had left Apple’s confines. Not even a hint.
For the sites that had been invited to the one-on-one briefings over the 14 days preceding the unveiling it was a massive scoop, those who were left out began scrambling to get something posted in a timely fashion.
This is Apple’s new game, I suspect it won’t be a common occurrence but with time it’s a tactic that will slowly see the demise of the rumour game. We must now stray back into the realm of speculation and think about how Apple internally looks upon publications who publish off-key rumours; the kind of rumours that seriously skew the direction Apple is heading. I’m by no means taking the heavy handed approach that TUAW have in suggesting that Apple will only favour publications that brown nose them, after all this is a medium of freedom we publish to and if I wish to criticise then I certainly will and I would like to think that other reputable publications would too.
I’m strictly speaking in terms of rumours here, Apple doesn’t like them and if your game is to publish them and publicise them then Apple will not look upon you favourably. The same goes in a far stricter fashion for sites who originate information covered by NDAs.
These advanced media briefings could solve all of Apple’s problems. A publication who wishes to be invited to these briefings over and over again will tread carefully, it’ll criticise and review poorly where necessary but also take heed of rumours, steer clear of NDA covered information and almost certainly hand back stolen Apple property. With time the rumours will slow, details covered under NDAs will remain confidential and all that’ll be released is the controlled flow of information that Apple wishes everyone to see.
Of course there are some publications that simply have no respect for themselves and will publish whatever garners them the most page views anyway.