No company in business history has played the scarcity card in media relations with the deftness of Apple.
People talk of the genius of Steve Jobs in regard to product design, pushing people to achieve the seemingly impossible and developing a cult-like following from customers. Often lost in this discussion is how Jobs orchestrated Apple’s media relations effort to guarantee that demand from journalists always exceeded supply from Apple. Make no mistake, even without the official title, Jobs was Apple’s global PR head.
He understood behavioral science. The more journalists can’t gain access to Apple executives and information, the more they pound pavement for sources. You served an espresso to so-and-so at the Kansas City airport? Did she seem happy?
What happens when you want something and can’t have it?
You think about it. You fixate on it. You try to figure out how to get it.
Shortly after the death of Steve Jobs, I wrote that one of Tim Cook’s greatest challenges would be steering the Apple story that ultimately feeds into its public profile and those customers willing to bring sleeping bags to line up early at Apple stores for the latest in cool hardware.
With this in mind, I’ve kept an eye out for the PR stumble that hasn’t happened.
When the New York Times came calling in 2012 with an exposé that the people responsible for assembling Apple products in China were working under third-world conditions to the point of causing some to commit suicide, Apple’s response was downright Jobs-esque. Cook parachuted into China to say “we care,” all the while Apple’s PR machine controlled the narrative by not allowing any journalists to attend Cook’s amble down the production line at a Foxconn plant. Instead, Apple provided the photo story below that ran everywhere, the LA Times, Fast Company, TechCrunch, the New York Times (oh, the irony), you name it.
Sharp-eyed readers will note the photo attribution of Agence France-Presse (AFP) and figure the image came from a wire service, not Apple. As it turns out, the photo that AFP originally ran did identify Apple as the source, but by the time the same photo landed in other media, the correct attribution had largely disappeared.
As a second example, when President Trump started calling out American companies for shipping jobs overseas, Apple didn’t wait around to play the passive victim. Cook rallied the company to create a fund to invest in manufacturing in the U.S. But it’s how Apple orchestrated the announcement that’s revealing.
There was no news release.
There was no press conference.
Apple anointed Jim Cramer at CNBC as the only media person who would enjoy access to Cook. Then, to create a touch of spontaneity for live TV, Cook “surprises” Cramer with the news of the fund to invest in advanced manufacturing. Underpinning the earned media piece, Apple also leveraged owned media, building a microsite on Apple’s contribution to job creation in the U.S.
With zero access to Tim Cook or other Apple execs and no news release available, journalists were forced to write their stories based on the pristine narrative put forth during the CNBC interview and Apple’s microsite on job creation.
Did it work?
Yes, I’d say it worked. These publications and other don’t like being handled. Yet, they accept Apple’s storytelling candy.
Today’s Apple is the most valued company on the planet with essentially a license to print money and $81B in cash under the couch cushion. Obviously, such a position helps in playing the scarcity card. Still, it’s fair to say that Mr. Cook has absolutely carried on the Jobs tradition of controlling “supply” to meet demand from journalists.
What got me thinking about this …
The Wall Street Journal just ran a profile on Cook. You would think that Apple would cooperate. Hey, it’s the Journal, a Tier 1 book in any PR database. Yet, deep into the story we learn:
“Apple declined to make Mr. Cook or any of its executives available. Instead, the company helped arrange calls with four people it said could speak to areas of importance to Mr. Cook such as environmentalism, education and health. None of the four said they knew him well. One had never met him, another met him only in passing, a third spent half an hour with him and a fourth spent a few hours with him.”
The journalist Tripp Mickle believes that sharing these details rather than the typical “Apple chose to not comment” tells us Apple went to great lengths to waste his time, a point that should be a ding against Apple and tarnish its brand.
Instead, it offers yet another proof point that Tim Cook has mastered the Steve Jobs’ skill of using supply-and-demand economics theory to control the narrative.