Journalists Accept Apple’s “Storytelling Candy”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook trekked to China in late March to show the world that Apple cares.

After the damning New York Times report, “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into An iPad,” Apple wanted to specifically connect with what goes on behind the curtain in the making of its products.

I noticed that photos of Cook adorned in laboratory-like regalia appeared in many of the stories, but didn’t think much about it.

Then I saw Ma Jun from the Institute of Public and Environmental affairs in Beijing interviewed about Apple on Bloomberg West last week. The segment included the same photo used in many of the print and online stories

bloomberg foxconn storyThis prompted me to reverse-engineer how Apple handled the communications around Cook’s trip to China.

In short, Apple’s strategy reflected the cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

The company hired a photographer to take photos of Cook interacting with Foxconn line workers and then distributed two shots to the media. Even if the words in the print/online stories were negative – and many were – Apple reasoned that a smiling CEO interacting with the common folks would serve as a positive counterbalance.

Of course, this assumes that the media would use PR photos with the story.

I chose a cross-section of publications which included several mainstream media properties and examined whether their stories on March 29/30 included Apple’s photos:

  • All Things D
  • Bloomberg
  • Business Insider
  • CBS News Online
  • Engadget
  • Fast Company
  • Forbes
  • GigaOm
  • Gizmodo
  • The Huffington Post (Reuters)
  • The Los Angeles Times
  • Mashable
  • Reuters
  • TechCrunch
  • The New York Times
  • The Next Web
  • The Telegraph
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • VentureBeat
  • Yahoo! News

The number surprised me.

Sixteen out of the 20 properties incorporated Apple’s storytelling candy.

Only Fast Company, TechCrunch, CBS News Online and All Things D took a pass.

I thought CBS News Online was particularly enterprising, pulling a candid shot from Weibo (Chinese micro-blogging service) of a Chinese consumer hanging with Mr. Cook.

apple foxconn

Apple figured out whether they communicated or not, journalists would write the Cook-in-China story and these stories would need visuals. And if they prevented the media from taking their own shots, they would probably use the Apple-controlled photos.

The data suggests they were right.

It’s also fascinating to see how the credit for the photos played out.

The wire services, Bloomberg, Reuters and AFP, identify the photos as coming from Apple.

But as media properties published their own stories and needed visuals, they pulled photos from the wire services, often dropping Apple as being the source. You can see an example of this in The L.A. Times story, which was kind enough to even include the Apple-crafted caption with the words “newly built Foxconn manufacturing facility.”

foxconn la times

Like a poker player with most of the chips exerting his will on the table, Apple leverages its position of strength with the media.

While journalists don’t want to be “handled,” it appears they make an exception for Apple.

The legacy of Steve Jobs lives on in more ways than one.

Note: One of our account folks, Julie Sugishita, did much of the heavy lifting for this post. If anyone is interested in a look at the data (spreadsheet), post a POV comment with your request and I’ll send it along.

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2 comments

2 Comments so far

  1. Ford Kanzler April 27th, 2012 11:13 am

    Lou – Your post offers an informative analysis. However, suggest Apple’s providing a smiling Cook-in-China photo seems more a logical PR practice than than some cleverly-contrived effort. Not likely any media (photojournalists or others) had access to Cook at the Foxconn facility or anywhere else while he was in China. So creating publicity shots for the visit was a no-brainer. Given the rather heavy politically-charged run up to Cook’s visit, fairly broad prospective media coverage of it would also seem a pretty good bet. So make the picture that you want to see published and give it away. Suggest Apple PR was just thinking ahead, like any effective PR pro ought to. Also suggest the resulting news coverage was fairly predictable…”New Apple CEO Looks Into Contract Manufacturer’s Labor Conditions.” What’s frankly much more stratigically interesting from a PR perspective, is planning and executing Cook’s trip to Foxconn in the first place. THAT was the smart PR/business/political move.

  2. Lou Hoffman April 27th, 2012 11:38 am

    I agree that the decision to parachute Cook into Foxconn timed with the labor practice report was a brilliant business move.

    But I would also say it’s a fairly common practice to meet with journalists at manufacturing facilities.

    Apple made a decision to not facilitate this type of access and to only provide information in the form of photos and captions.

    Thge approach allowed Apple to completely control this dimension of the story which in turn paid off in the media coverage.

    I spoke to one of the journalists who did NOT run the Apple photo with its story. While she wouldn’t comment for the record (kind of ironic), she said the publication avoided the photos because it did not want Apple dictating the narrative. I know it’s dangerous to extropolate from one ancecdote, but I do think it’s interesting that many major media properties are o.k. with Apple dictating the narrative.

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