The last six months have been really interesting from a crisis PR standpoint. The combination of the public’s insatiable demand for information, the online media world’s never ending quest for clicks, and some unforeseeable circumstances have created some really interesting case studies on how a crisis can unfold and how companies should deal with them in the current new media landscape.
I know this topic has been done to death, but a month later now that the dust has settled, it’s interesting to see how things unfolded. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, the public had been clamoring for more info on the upcoming iPhone 4G, which Apple wouldn’t even acknowledge existed. Then, in late April, the news broke: Gizomodo, a tech blog owned by Gawker Media (which also owns two of our favorite sites, Jalopnik and io9), had possession of a top secret iPhone 4G prototype, dissected it, and they were telling all. Sounds like a hollywood gossip column piece.
As it turns out, an Apple engineer went drinking, forgot the prototype on his stool and an observant (but unscrupulous) passerby picked it up, figured out what it was, called a different tech blog, and when they passed called Gizmodo – who paid for it. They photographed the phone, posted the story, and it got so much buzz is promptly crashed the Gawker comment server. That same night, a lawyer from Apple swung by Giz editor Jason Chen’s house and picked up the phone. Then, the police raided Chen’s home, seized his property, and Apple made rumblings about theft and lawsuits. As it turns out all pretty much settled back down to normal, and Chen ended up scoring huge traffic for his site without anything more than a verbal slap on the wrists. Then the buzz began that Apple leaked the phone on purpose to generate buzz, a silly notion to anyone who has witnessed one of Steve Job’s well-orchestrated summer unveils at Macworld. This is a company that likes to control every minute detail of its message, so leaking a story to a snarky tech blog isn’t its style. Even Gizmodo says so.
At this point, the good news is the world is snapping up iPads like crazy and people are clamoring for the new 4th Gen iPhone. On the other hand, the company’s handling of the situation (denial, then a theft complaint resulting in a raid) makes the normally friendly feeling Apply seem pretty Orwellian. So… less than a week later when Ellen DeGeneres makes a cutesy little farse commercial for her talk show about how hard texting on the iPhone can be (she’s right… especially if you have fat thumbs), you’d think the Cupertino company would just roll with it. Nope… they made a stink with the network and demanded Ellen apologize. You can see the commercial and the apology here:
So… now the company has two killer products, one that’s selling like mad and another coming soon, and Jobs looks like Darth Vader piloting the Death Star. Not good. What could they have done differently? I’m sure the company has a few agencies on 7-figure budgets to tell them, but in my humble opinion they should have done the following:
1. Stick with “no comment” until the phone was confirmed missing
2. Once confirmed, own the mistake, admit it was a prototype phone, thank Gizmodo for finding it and returning it (even before they did so… put the pressure on) then make a statement explaining that every once in a while these things happen, they’re glad reaction has been positive, and thanks to Gizmodo for treating the phone with respect. Other changes are imminent, so this isn’t the final model, but everyone got a sneak peek.
Once the cat is out of the bag, ride the positive PR and buzz and move up the release date. Oh… and don’t put the smack down on the friendly dancing TV host. She makes a living being snarky and poking fun at things… why make the target on your back even bigger?