The idea that companies simply survive public relations disasters is simplistic and suggests that the company doing the surviving comes out on the other side of the fray intact and healthy as ever. In reality, analyzing how well a company is recovering from PR blunders – especially when the situation is only a few weeks old – is like evaluating the stability of a building after an earthquake based on whether it’s still standing. As somebody who experienced the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California, I can tell you that even small cracks in buildings potentially represent serious structural problems.
One of latest public relations debacles happens to have its epicenter in California; Cupertino, to be exact. Apple’s iPhone 4 hit stores on June 24 and its worshipping followers expected it to be a continuation of the company’s nearly unbroken record of quality, cutting edge computing devices. You know what actually happened: the iPhone 4 drops calls when you touch the lower left corner and Steve Jobs dismissed the problem by saying that a phone can’t be perfect. Oh, and he handed out free cases.
I could linger on the question of why the cases weren’t handed out in the first place. According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple knew about the issue, but I digress. I have three points I want to make about that rattling noise I hear in Cupertino.
- Apple is starting to cash in on the loyalty capital it has accumulated. According to somebody familiar with the iPhone 4’s design sited in the Wall Street Journal, “Apple engineers were aware of the risks associated with the new antenna design as early as a year ago, but Chief Executive Steve Jobs liked the design so much that Apple went ahead with its development.” I call that hubris and that generally precedes poor decisions, as it did in this case.
- In its rush to get the iPhone 4 to market, or for other more nefarious reasons, Apple did not give its carriers enough time to fully test the phone. Instead, Apple relied on its reputation and trustworthiness to get its phone past carriers, which apparently failed to detect the glitch in their own haste to cash in on the new product.
- Competition waits in the wings. Apple’s allure is due to the image of perfection it has cultivated by consistently delivering superior products to the marketplace. Sleek design is part of its success, but Apple was also supposed to be functionally better than its competitors. Not so now. Apple has turned into the Toyota of cell phone manufacturers, using a near perfect reputation for quality to catapult it into the business of mass production. We all know how that turned out for Toyota.
In the coming months, public relations practitioners and those in the media will be tempted to say that Apple weathered the iPhone 4 storm. Sales of the phone will continue at a strong clip and Apple’s stock price will continue to rise. But that’s the definition of survival, not necessarily of transcending the PR problem (I could write a case study on how not to respond to a faulty product based on Steve Jobs’ talking points during the heat of this event).
I would argue that there are barely-discernible cracks that are developing in the Apple foundation that will be more apparent a year or two or three down the road. Public relations disasters, even if they don’t have any immediately discernible long-term consequences for a company, eat at the company’s foundation like tremors at the foundation of a building. Over time those little public relations mistakes add up to big problems. You may not be able to point to any one event, but the accumulated impact of minor mistakes can be devastating to a brand image.