When Tim Cook took the reins of Apple after Steve Jobs passed away, I suggested that replacing the narrative cultivated by Mr. Jobs would be tougher than the product roadmap.
More than understanding the classic arc and how to tease out drama in the Apple story, Job’s real gift for PR and brand building came from orchestrating scarcity around Apple’s communications. The tougher it was to know what was going on at Apple, the more journalists clamored for the slightest news morsel with relevance to Apple.
Obviously, Tim Cook wasn’t going to replicate Jobs’ stature as a media icon. I’m not sure if there’s ever been an executive who followed a charismatic founder and equaled his or her media profile.
With Cook recently hitting the five-year mark since his promotion, every business publication on the planet has published a retrospective on his five years in “office.” The numbers tell the story with today’s Apple sitting on more cash than the GDP of some countries.
But how has Cook’s Apple engaged with the media? Has Apple continued to secure more than its fair share of media coverage?
I think answers to these questions can be found in a story and some back-of-the-envelope research.
When Cook was relatively new on the job in 2012, he faced his first crisis. The New York Times published a scathing report, “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad” that documented the horrid working conditions at Foxconn, the company manufacturing iPads. To diffuse the issue, Cook journeyed to China to show the world that Apple cares about the people toiling in the trenches to make Apple products.
It’s revealing to reverse-engineer the PR behind this trip. Cook wasn’t available to talk to journalists during this trip, and the company didn’t issue any type of formal statement. Yet, this photo of Cook adorned in laboratory-like regalia appeared in most stories.Apple 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.
It worked with publications ranging from Bloomberg to Mashable to the LA Times using Apple’s visual storytelling.
Apple surmised that 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.
They were right.
It’s a page right out of the Steve Jobs playbook called “Scarcity.”
It’s also fascinating to see how the credit for the photos played out. The wire services, Bloomberg, Reuters and AFP, identified 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 (which you see in the LA Times photo above).
Turning to the research, our crack team put together a chart on Apple’s media footprint. It depicts Apple’s media footprint — defining media footprint as the number of stories in Factiva’s major news and business sources — during Jobs’ last five years and Cook’s first five years.
Before going further, I recognize that this isn’t exactly a scientific approach to dissecting Apple’s media footprint. Obviously, it doesn’t account for the qualitative side of coverage. Still it gives us a horseshoe-close macro look at Tim Cook’s Apple in the media compared to Apple with Jobs in charge. The conclusion — Apple’s media coverage has not suffered since the passing of Jobs.
Without sifting through all 124,948 articles — now there’s a torturous task for our interns — we can still rationalize the three anomalies in the data. The roughly doubling of coverage from 2009 to 2010 came from the introduction of iPad and the deterioration – and speculation – of Jobs’ health. The spike in 2012 was a byproduct of all eyes on Timmy. And this year’s jump traces to Cook’s decision to stand up to the Department of Justice in not helping to access an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.
Putting these events to the side, it seems fair to conclude that Apple’s media footprint has been up and to the right under Cook’s tenure. As noted earlier, he wasn’t going to replicate Jobs’ mastery of storytelling. Still, in his own way, he’s continued Apple’s history of building its brand through media relations.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Apple has grown into a $600 billion company — so a new sous chef at the HQ becomes newsworthy.