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Apple’s Bad Press Relations

When I read Ian Gregson’s piece about his experiences with Macintosh retail sales (see TidBITS-367), I was amazed at how much it mirrors the situation here in the U.K. I also anticipated Apple would begin complaining about the attitudes of retail stores rather than changing the way Macs are sold through these outlets. After all, Apple’s usual line of defence in such matters is to attack the attacker. I know about this stance – I’m a journalist and I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of Apple’s misfortune (not personally, but as part of my profession). To mix metaphors, Apple has long blamed the messenger for its own woes. Apple’s main stance is to blame bad press as the reason why sales are low at Christmas, or why the quarter’s loss is greater than expected (sound familiar?).

But blaming the press is only half of the story, and there is another half. What about us journalists; what do we feel? We’re a pretty apathetic bunch, after all (and, as you’ll see, that’s an inherent part of the problem), slothful in the extreme, drunkards in the main, quick to go with the mainstream, slow to try something new and potentially better, only looking for a free lunch and the pay cheque at the end of the month. At least that’s the common perception – never mind that it’s largely incorrect.

In journalism, time is the most important factor, as I hope to prove; yet, Apple doesn’t seem to appreciate that fact. Even when we try to tell Apple about the problem, do we get the message through? Of course not. Have you ever tried sending email to Apple’s management? Did you receive a response? I didn’t think so.

A Journalist’s Point of View — Ian Gregson’s piece made me think it might be a good idea to relate a journalist’s perspective. Although this is from a U.K. hack’s position, what I’ve heard from the other side of the pond seems similar. Perhaps someone in Apple has an ear on the pulse of the Internet (metaphors exist to be mixed – they grab the reader’s attention more than boldly split infinitives!) and perhaps something good will become of this article. (Come to think of it, maybe the person reading this article and checking the pulse will be Doctor Amelio himself… Nah, it’ll never happen.)

Let’s begin with four facts:

  • Good editorial coverage can be the most effective advertising a product can have – it’s certainly the most cost effective.

  • Bad editorial coverage can rarely be countered by any amount of advertising.

  • If a product is good (well, as good as a Mac, anyway) good editorial coverage is cheap – far cheaper than advertising.

  • Time is of the essence.

To understand the fourth fact, we need a little background on the editorial process. As a journalist, it’s important that I receive the information I need quickly. If I’m commissioned by an editor to write a review or a feature, in most cases the editor wants it within a couple of days. Even when a feature is planned in advance, I generally have only a week or two for research. This is the case throughout U.K. journalism, irrespective of media (magazine, newspaper, broadcast) and I suspect it is the same in the U.S. Journalists need information fast. Put another way, fact four is that journalists can’t wait beyond the deadline for the information to come to them at Apple’s convenience.

It’s relatively easy for companies like Apple to make written or verbal information available. The various electronic means (email, HTML, PDF, even fax and telephone) can all help to ensure a journalist gets necessary information rapidly. Over the last few months, it has been nice to see Apple start to get its act together in providing factual information. Apple’s Web sites are increasingly becoming a joy to use as the information and links they hold become more and more coordinated. When I need rapid access to information, I frequently turn to them as one of the first sources. Apple’s improving in this respect, and I find little to criticise.

When a journalist writes about a particular product, on the other hand, that product must be available for a first-hand evaluation. I cannot review a product if I don’t have it. Here is where Apple lacks a coordinated and workable response to journalists.

Some Examples — To back this up I’m going to quote some real, live examples that I’ve had to contend with. These might be U.K.-specific, but vibes I get from reading U.S.-based magazines make me think the problem is endemic within Apple and all its subsidiaries.

First, how do other companies handle journalists? Take Microsoft in the U.K. They have a press agency (Text 100), which has a dedicated Microsoft helpline for journalists (no messing around with a switchboard, or holding to canned Muzak). When a journalist requires a product for review, Text 100 arranges for the product’s immediate courier delivery – no questions. The product is an NFR (not for resale), which becomes the journalist’s personal copy. This is a slick operation in the UK. Microsoft knows the value of good editorial copy. Other successful companies (software and hardware – Adobe, Macromedia, and Visioneer to name a few) have similar PR setups. For pity’s sake, even Quark has its act together with press relations.

How does Apple U.K. handle journalists? Its U.K. press agency takes your call, then must get the product from Apple. Most times, Apple only allocates two or three product items for use by the PR agency on a loan-only basis, so the product must be returned after the review. Typically, loaned items are in popular demand by journalists, and it may be weeks before everyone has a turn at borrowing them.

My crowning example of this problem occurred when I wrote a series of articles about various online and Internet services a year or so ago. I intended to look at Apple’s now-defunct eWorld as part of this series, but was told by the PR agency that only two accounts were allocated to U.K. journalists (only two for the whole of the U.K.?), but I could have an account for a couple of weeks if I could wait for six weeks before receiving it as I was fourth in the queue. As I was in the fortunate (and unusual) position of writing a multi-part series in a monthly magazine, I figured I’d fit in eWorld somewhere down the line and agreed. If I’d been writing a single feature (the norm for other journalists) I simply couldn’t have included eWorld. The account duly arrived after six weeks and I put it aside until I was to write that part of the series. Later, I tried to log on and was rejected because I’d overrun the two weeks by a day. Like most of the world’s journalists who suffered the same lack of PR, I didn’t write about eWorld at all, so undoubtedly I unwittingly became part of eWorld’s demise.

How does Microsoft ensure journalists remain Microsoft-friendly in the same circumstances? Every journalist who wants can have a free and permanent connection to the Microsoft Network. Other online services in the U.K. (AOL and CompuServe) do the same, as do most ISPs. In a nutshell, maybe that’s why Apple pulled the plug on eWorld! Not because it wasn’t a good service (I can’t comment – I never got access, remember), but because it never got decent press coverage due to Apple’s complacency.

This isn’t an isolated instance in my experience. I went through the same procedure to review the MessagePad 130, and found I could borrow one for only a week, some four weeks on down the line. Everyone knows (except Apple, presumably) that you must use a Newton for at least a month for it and you to become au fait with each other. A journalist playing with a MessagePad for a week can’t be expected to write about it with serious conviction.

To introduce a new technology like Newton, Apple should have given MessagePads to every high-tech journalist in the world, as a loss leader. I don’t think it would be unfair to say the technology would have been more widely adopted by now if that had happened. As it is, the much inferior Windows CE (which any interested journalist need only call the local Microsoft PR agency to try) has a good chance to succeed where the Newton probably won’t. It’s no good merely telling people how good your new technology is, you must prove it.

In a nutshell, there are maybe 400 journalists in the U.K. who influence the total computer purchasing powers of Joe Public here. To give them all a MessagePad 2000 and a 6500/300 might seem a lot to write off, but, for heaven’s sake, we’re talking of potential sales in the millions. Nobody, and I mean nobody, buys a computer without reading any of the multitude of magazines on the newsstands. As few of the non-Mac-specific magazines mention Apple at all, Joe Public will obviously think of the Mac as not worthy of consideration. Q.E.D.

This malaise is not restricted to the Apple mother company itself. A few months ago I was commissioned to write a roundup of email software for Internet Today magazine. Naturally, I wanted to include Claris Emailer, but neither the editor of the magazine nor myself could acquire a shrink-wrapped copy in time for the deadline (a fairly typical two weeks). I had to download a 30-day demo off the Claris Web site to see the product. To say this was unsatisfactory is merely being polite. [Perhaps the situation is improving – TidBITS received a shrink-wrapped copy of Claris Emailer 2.0 the day before it officially shipped, and two more inexplicably arrived a week later.-Adam]

It’s Not About Freebies — I realise many readers will think I’m being self-centered in my argument that myself and other journalists should receive freebies. That’s crap! Freebies are a fact of life in journalism – you should see my attic: it’s stuffed full of products I’ve reviewed or featured and, apart from writing about them and being paid for that, I receive no financial gain from any of them. Companies who issue freebies as part of the marketing process reap the rewards in editorial coverage. If the products being freebied are good, then the editorial coverage will be good. Journalism is a profession, and journalists are professionals, but they don’t have the time to chase companies like Apple for product. If product isn’t available journalists can’t see it and discover its value. Worse, they might (and do) create negative editorial coverage for lack of product. You only have to understand how journalism ticks to see where Apple is going wrong.

I’m a Mac user, I love the Mac, I love just about every product Apple produces. But I’m frustrated. I want everybody else to be a Mac user. I’m prepared to put up with problems like those I’ve given as examples because of my love.

On the other hand, journalists who don’t share my love for the Mac don’t need to and frankly won’t put up with these problems – hence the bad press Apple appears to suffer constantly. In reality, much of it is not bad press, it’s merely misinformed press. The problem is not just one of making sure journalists have the information they need instantly. It is a problem of making sure they have product instantly, too. Without product, there is no incentive to look for the information in the first place, so a chicken-and-egg situation evolves. Until Apple meets the problem head-on and starts helping journalists instead of blaming them, bad press will not change.

Please Gil and company, change it.

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