This week on the Beyond Devices podcast (embedded below), we talked among other things about Apple’s evolving PR strategy, using the lens of the Apple Music launch as a way to illustrate how things have changed. I thought I’d do a quick write-up of that segment here too.
The old model
Under Steve Jobs and PR chief Katie Cotton (who retired from Apple last year), Apple’s PR strategy focused on two key components: tightly stage-managed events and announcements, and occasional “leaks” to favored publications, almost always off the record and quoted as being from unnamed sources. Executives did very few on the record interviews, and the media generally were given relatively little access to Apple behind the scenes for on the record stories.
The new model
With Steve Jobs’ passing and Katie Cotton’s retirement, we’re now in the Tim Cook / Steve Dowling era (Dowling was finally announced as the permanent head of PR after an interim period with no formal head of the department), and things are starting to change. The company seems looser and more open, with more access to executives, more communication on the record through other publications, and also more openness to new channels like Twitter.
Apple Music launch as the lens
I think Apple Music is a great lens for looking at all this, because it’s a good example of how some of these new approaches are coming into play. The launch is perhaps best thought of in phases (most of them likely planned, one certainly not):
- WWDC keynote – the formal announcement
- WWDC interviews – a range of interviews with publications at or right after WWDC
- Taylor Swift – the blog post from Swift and the rapid response from Apple, which included more interviews
- Blog posts and tweets from Apple personnel
- The New York Times profile on Zane Lowe the week before launch
- Reviews and interviews released the day of the launch
- Post-launch activities.
The WWDC keynote has been done to death elsewhere, so I won’t focus on that – it felt rushed and a bit unpolished, especially at the end, when the topic was Apple Music. But Apple provided access to Eddy Cue and Jimmy Iovine right after the keynote to a half-dozen publications, and these interviews focused on Apple Music, allowing Apple to provide more messaging and positioning around Apple Music and Beats 1 in particular. There were few new details here, except perhaps for some information about sponsorships on Beats 1, but there was a clear set of messages from the execs: Apple Music was about providing a service, not a utility, Beats 1 was about a human-driven experience in contrast to the algorithmic approaches of others, and wouldn’t be driven by market research but by gut feel, and Apple Music wasn’t about stealing subscribers from competitors but about growing paid streaming. Those messages didn’t necessarily come through as strongly in the keynote, but they came through very clearly in these interviews, about half of which were with music rather than tech publications (more on this later).
We covered the Taylor Swift incident in last week’s podcast, but the key things here were:
- Apple responded incredibly quickly – on a Sunday, no less
- The first official response came via Eddy Cue’s Twitter account, not an Apple press release – the first time Apple has broken news via the medium
- Eddy Cue also made himself available for several interviews with publications on Sunday and Monday, to explain his / Apple’s reasoning and again provide messaging and positioning around the actions.
This highlights several of the changes we’re seeing in Apple’s PR strategy – rapid response, the use of Twitter as a medium, and the availability of executives for on the record interviews, used to provide more nuanced messaging and positioning around news. All of these are new – recall “antennagate” and the Apple Maps launch and how it took Apple to respond to those issues, for example.
Twitter and blog posts
Those tweets from Eddy Cue, though, haven’t been the only uses of the medium for breaking news about Apple Music. Zane Lowe has used Twitter throughout the buildup to the launch to tease things and break smaller bits of news, including the announcement of his Eminem interview. Pharrell Williams announced the exclusive debut of his song Freedom on Apple Music through Twitter as well.
Perhaps the most surprising thing (though I suspect it wasn’t an intentional thing on behalf of Apple PR) was the blog post written by Apple employee Ian Rogers, which was posted on June 27th, and announced specific times for the release of iOS 8.4 and the launch of Beats 1. Those times were subsequently scrubbed from the post, but the very fact Rogers felt free to blog about the launch in this way is yet another sign of the increasing openness at Apple.
More broadly, I’ve very much enjoyed the broader use of Twitter by key executives at Apple – not so much for making announcements, but simply for sharing what they’re up to, making themselves visible on this social medium, and in the case of Eddy Cue even responding to some technical questions from other Twitter users this week.
New York Times profile
The New York Times ran a lengthy profile of Beats 1 lead DJ Zane Lowe on January 28th, and it was a good example of the new on the record pieces we’ve seen in recent months, in the same vein as the Stephen Fry and New Yorker profiles on Jony Ive. It was pretty unsanitized, and began with an apparently frustrating experience for Zane Lowe working with the equipment in his new studio (something which was weirdly echoed in the hour of Beats 1 programming before the official launch). But it also broke a lot of details for the first time about the other Beats 1 hosts and DJs, including Pharrell, Drake, Elton John, St Vincent, Josh Homme, Disclosure, and Dr Dre. This use by Apple of a publication like the Times to break this kind of news is again something of a departure – oftentimes these details in the past would have been leaked to such a publication from “sources with knowledge of the situation”, but this is the new, on the record, Apple.
Reviews and interviews around the launch
The last major phase of the Apple Music launch was the launch itself, for which Apple provided devices running previews of Apple Music the day before, and also provided yet more access to executives like Eddy Cue and Jimmy Iovine, and Trent Reznor. The reviews were nothing new (though the last-minute nature suggests a dash to the finish line rather than a new precedent for reviews), but the interviews were, though very much in keeping with the pattern we’ve already seen above. These interviews again hit many of the same points around positioning and messaging, and allowed Apple to put its spin and story around the launch rather than letting others do it for them. Many of the interviews were published in verbatim question-and-answer formats, allowing the executives to speak for themselves.
Even after the launch, we’ve seen a continuation of some of the same themes – Zane Lowe is still teasing new stuff on Twitter, Billboard did a profile on hip-hop artists and DJ Q-Tip about the show he’ll be doing for Beats 1 (among other things), and there’s a sense that many of the other themes will continue too.
But even beyond the launch of Apple Music, it feels like we’ve seen several elements of Apple’s new PR strategy here which will stick around for the future. The increased use of Twitter, the on-the-record interviews with executives, the communication with non-tech publications (music ones for the Apple Music launch but also fashion and jewelry publications for the Apple Watch), and so on feel like they will likely all be part of Apple’s PR strategy going forward. Tim Cook famously spoke about doubling down on secrecy a while back, so it’s not like Apple is going to suddenly spill the beans about everything as it happens. We’ll still see tightly stage-managed events to announce the big news, but it also feels like Apple is more willing to be open and to truly communicate about what it’s doing, which has to be credited in large part to Tim Cook, who’s made a number of subtle changes at the company since taking over.