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Apple’s PR machine, iPhone rumours, and the quest for a balanced perspective

On Friday, 9 to 5 Mac published Mark Gurman's gripping inside look at Apple's PR strategy. The story, "Seeing Through the Illusion: Understanding Apple's Mastery of the Media", is fine example of the kind of news reporting too often missing on the web today. His multi-section report is well-organised, believably-sourced (even where anonymously), and accurate - to which I can attest based on my experience dealing with Apple as a journalist. Gurman also validates many of my ongoing complaints about how bloggers and journalists report on the company.

As expressed three-and-a-half years ago, "I am not anti-Apple". But I am against the unquestioning pro-Apple caucus the news media has become. As stated on my birthday in 2011: "My problem isn't Apple, but all the news and misinformation about the company. You can chalk up any tone in my Apple posts to them. Someone has to counterbalance this crap".

Apple's finely-tuned PR machine unquestionably feeds the pro-caucus - and I don't object to that; and shouldn't. The public relations professionals do what they are paid to: promote the company. Members of the Fourth Estate have a different responsibility: to report the news as accurately as possible. Not rumours. Not hearsay that pops up anonymously sourced - or not all.

Related: Why Apple's next smartphone should be called the iPhone Air, not iPhone 6

When blogger babble turns against Apple, I defend the company - just like I'm harder when the echo chamber resounds for it. One example: When the company's shares fell following stellar earnings, I posted "Apple serves a feast, but Wall Street complains there's no ketchup", explaining why they were good. Another: "Defending Apple", writing that: "For investors, and also developers, complaining about lacking innovation, Apple demands patience. A few products done really well is better than many".

I'm not kind to Apple. There is no shrine to the late Steve Jobs in my closet. That doesn't make me a hater or biased against the company. But Apple's attack dogs, who are quick to use the H word in comments, want you to think otherwise about me or any other reporter taking a more critical view.

Commenter critics accuse me (and others) of chasing page views or being a biased. John Topher comments about my recent article on Apple's masterful manipulation marketing machine: "The man has an issue with Apple. It is clear in his blog posts. What is not clear is, is it real, as in he has got some weird obsession or it is simply linkbait as in anti-Apple rants = page hits because of Apple's popularity".

My easily written response: "I don't write for page views. I write for people. If I wanted 'page hits', then I would post every stupid Apple rumour, by your 'popularity' reasoning". Where do you think the page views are? The rumour stories, which explains in part why there are so many. But his accusation, presented with no facts or story citations, impugns my credibility.

The Gurman Report

I am thoroughly impressed by Gurman's report, not because I agree but know it to be true. I have interacted with all the principal PR people that he identifies. He writes about my experience, and that of other long-time tech journalists. More importantly, I like his tone, which even when recounting something many readers will take as negative about PR, is flat. His story is balanced, well-sourced, and believable.

The news report's timing is hugely important, so soon following the departure of former PR chief Katie Cotton, and there being an increasing amount of questions about what the future of Apple public relations might be (friendlier perhaps even if still secretive). Cotton's PR approach fit Jobs' personality and Apple during the lean years. Her - presumably forced - retirement is a positive development and surely reflects the CEO's influence.

Tim Cook isn't Steve Jobs. In many ways he better fits Apple, because of where the company is today. For my perspective on Cook's leadership, see stories: "Apple is better off without Steve Jobs"; "Tim Cook takes iPhone where Steve Jobs couldn't"; "I hate to sound like an Apple apologist, but..."; and "Tim Cook pulls off a Steve Jobs".

Guerrilla PR/marketing tactics made sense for a company fighting the WinTel establishment. But in 2014, at the height of popularity, Apple in many ways is "The Man", and the reference isn't meant to carry negative connotations. Apple is the tech industry's statesman, based on its success, product designs, and purveyor of good tastes. That stature and larger customer base carries responsibilities that guerrilla tactics don't fit and even work against.

Read more: Apple PR hasn't lifted a finger in creating iPhone 6 and iWatch media frenzy

The Cook Way

I don't expect a post-Jobs, post-Cotton Apple to be any less obsessed about appearances or focused on compelling, aspirational marketing. But I do see more frenemy relationships with the Fourth and Fifth Estates. Cook is a logistics mastermind, and he demonstrates more pragmatism than his predecessor and greater willingness to take responsibility when there are real or perceived problems. The Apple Maps debacle is excellent example, as Gurman explains:

Instead of simply watching as executives passed blame around a board room table, Cook took control of the situation and promised a solution. Whatever you may think of the decision, it was a giant moment in Apple leadership, given [Scott] Forstall's prior importance to the company; the detail-obsessed executive had been called Apple's CEO in waiting.

When applying the Cook Way to media relations, I see more strategic cooperation than aloof antagonism ahead. Already, there are more clearly and cleverly placed leaks - some I suspect from Apple to misdirect rumour mongers. Other leaks keep speculation, news analysis, and rumours about Apple buzzing the web. Some of this is tried-and-true practice, based on Gurman's report, while I see the reach increasing as Apple seeks to work better with select journalists and media outlets.

Given Apple's current state of popularity and success and the kinds of blogs or news stories written, the media isn't the enemy it was before the iPhone era. Cook's PR team would be smart to work with rather than against these frenemies, and I believe the chief executive leads that direction.

I don't suggest Apple is about to open up, disclose the secrets, or suddenly start responding to many requests for comment. Mystery makes marketing magic, and Apple isn't about to change that. Saying nothing or a little off the record is still the soundest PR strategy. You can't be misquoted for what you don't say.

But it's also clear that the Cotton Way is no longer the Apple Way; I look with fascination to see how Tim Cook tunes the machinery. I also wouldn't mind being kinder to the company. But as long as my peers write Apple rumours gone wild, I will seek to balance the public record. Someone should.

Image Credit: Joe Wilcox