Apple’s recent product introductions generated the expected media hoopla. I think the only publication that did not write about Apple’s announcement was “Miniature Donkey Talk Magazine” (yes, it exists).
Apple under Steve Jobs essentially invented the show-biz event for introducing tech products. They know how to do this better than any company on the planet.
But how does Apple grade out in sustaining its media footprint week after week, year after year since Mr. Jobs passed away? When Tim Cook took the reins of Apple in late 2011, 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.
Consider the anticipation before this year’s press event. In the two weeks leading into the big day, publications scramble to uncover even a small morsel that foreshadows what’s ahead, anything that offers a reason to write about 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. Still, it’s reasonable to evaluate how the company has engaged with the media since he took the helm. In short, has Apple secured more than its fair share of media coverage?
I think the answer to this question can be found in two stories 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 does care 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, and the company didn’t issue any type of formal statement. Yet, this photo of Cook clad 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.
Mr. Cook took the 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).
More recently, when President Trump started to beat the drum with the “American companies who build stuff overseas hurt the economy” narrative, Apple didn’t play the passive victim. The company recognized that dependence on overseas manufacturing made it vulnerable in this unique political climate.
If President Trump was going to brag for weeks on end about saving 800 jobs at a furnace plant in Indy — he scored this win back in November — it was only a matter of time before he decided to revisit the fact that Apple has created north of 1 million jobs overseas to crank out iPhones and the like. No doubt Apple’s what-if scenario planning concluded that billions of dollars were at stake, not just in lost sales, but also in the potential of tarnishing the Apple brand.
This led to an announcements by Apple last year to invest in advanced manufacturing in the U.S. But there was no news release or press conference. Instead, Apple anointed CNBC’s Jim Cramer as the lucky one who enjoyed exclusive access to Cook. The CNBC story prompted a zillion media outlets ranging from TechCrunch to WIRED to The Washington Post to cover the Apple announcement.
Again, what’s revealing is how the journalists covered the story. With zero access to Tim Cook or other Apple execs and no news release available, the journalists were forced to write their stories based on the pristine narrative put forth during the CNBC interview,
Apple then doubled down on this announcement last January with the specifics, what was characterized as a $359 billion investment in the U.S. economy and one that would create 20,000 new jobs. The news triggered another spike of media coverage and more importantly, took Apple out of the President’s line of fire.
Mr. Jobs could not have played this better.
Turning to the research, the following chart 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 tenure to date.
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 overarching look at Tim Cook’s Apple in the media compared to Apple with Jobs in charge.
Without sifting through 100,000+ articles, we can still rationalize the four 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. The 2016 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. And while this year’s number looks like a drop off, keep in mind it doesn’t take into account the September product fireworks.
All in all, we can conclude that Apple’s media coverage has not suffered since the passing of Jobs. Cook 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.