On the occasion of Apple PR VP of Communication, Katie Cotton, announcing her retirement from Apple, many commentators are recounting some of their experiences with Apple PR, which could often have the opposite effect of what a journalist expects. When I speak to a PR rep from most other tech companies, I usually end up knowing more about the company’s products. On the very few occasions I’ve had to talk with Apple PR, that usually didn’t happen.
As an example, let’s say that I set up a conversation to talk with Adobe about one of their products, or Microsoft about one of theirs. I’ll usually end up on the phone with someone from their respective PR firms, and a knowledgeable member of the product team from the company itself. Since we write a bestselling book about the product (and I also review it for magazines), I’ve spoken more than once to Adobe about Dreamweaver, and its usually one or two PR folks and the Dreamweaver product manager, who knows practically everything about how the product works. I can ask questions about parts of the product that I don’t understand well, ask about bugs I’ve found, and in general end up with a bunch of information that will help my book. It’s usually a pretty collegial atmosphere; any product has bugs, and product managers are usually frank about their existence, if understandably slippery about when they are likely to be fixed. But they almost always have suggestions about workarounds for bugs. And sometimes you can even get hints of what will be happening with future versions of the product.
I’ve also written several books about Keynote, Apple’s presentation program, so when it came time to revise the main book, I was pretty happy to be able to set up a conversation with them about the product. Of course, I’d done my homework, so when I ended up on the phone with a PR person and Keynote’s product marketing manager (PMM), I had a bunch of questions to ask. The conversation took place shortly after a new version of Keynote had been released (since Apple doesn’t brief writers at my lowly level about pre-released products).
Things seemed to start well. I threw out a softball remark about one of the new features, and how much I liked it. Then I moved on to some of the questions I had about other new features. What I got back was…odd. It seemed as though they were talking from a very narrow script, not really how people talk. When I’d ask how a particular feature could be used, I’d get back something that sounded strangely familiar. It was as though I knew more about using Keynote than the PMM.
Eventually I realized that the PMM was quoting almost exactly from the Keynote public web site. I got no information from him about the product that wasn’t already on the site.
When I switched to asking about bugs, things got even weirder. They never admitted to the existence of any bugs that I (and the extensive Keynote community) had found and replicated. When I asked about a bug, the response was “Thank you for that feedback.” When I asked if there was a workaround for a particular bug (and I knew there was a workaround), I was told “We don’t have a comment about that at this time.” This went around for a while; they were always polite and apparently willing to be helpful. But no actual help was ever forthcoming.
By the time I got off the phone, I was, frankly, a little freaked out. I’d been doing this sort of thing for more than 20 years at that time, and I’d never had such an unproductive product briefing. I was wondering, “Is it me? Did I ask the wrong questions or something?” I looked at my iChat list and IM’d a journalist friend who works for a city newspaper, and who has done many columns on Apple products.
In our voice chat, I poured out what had just happened. He chuckled.
“Congratulations, you’ve just had a typical Apple PR experience.” I spoke to a few other friends, and they all told me the same thing; that was the way Apple briefings tended to go. This was the era of Think Different, and Apple PR certainly was thinking differently than other companies. But that incredibly tight control over message worked against them, I think. Over the years, my many conversations with Adobe and Microsoft ended up making my books about their products better, with deeper information, allowing me to better teach their products. But my talk with Apple, since I got no useful information, didn’t help me, the company, the product, or my readers at all. In the larger scheme of things, my wasted opportunity didn’t turn out to be a big deal. But multiply that by all the other journalists that Apple’s managed to annoy over the years with these tactics, and it’s no wonder they get so much bitter press. Was it really necessary? I don’t think so.