WSJ: competition forcing Apple’s PR to work ‘a little harder to get its message out’

Tim Cook holds iPad (with Katie Cotton, Jacqui Cheng)

There used to be a long-standing joke about Apple’s public relations department that it was the least demanding job in Silicon Valley. It was almost as if Apple’s PR bunnies were only required not to return calls from journalists and disregard email inquiries from various media outlets. Couple this inaccessibility and Apple’s penchant for dreaming up shiny gadgets people lust after with the infamous culture of secrecy and you have a winning formula for a kind of coverage other companies would die for.

But the times they are a-changin’, to paraphrase musician Bob Dylan, Steve Jobs favorite songwriter. The Wall Street Journal fittingly reported Tuesday that Apple’s public relations team now has to work a little harder to get the message across, a tell-tale sign that competition is heating up. Hit the jump for more tidbits and my own insight on how Apple owns the media…

Jessica E. Lessin filed this with The Wall Street Journal:

Apple has long been willing to sing its own praises when it needs to, issuing press releases about major milestones, products and sales. So rather than a big shift, the latest moves represent a recognition that competition is heating up, a person familiar with the matter says.

The author notes that last week’s iOS 6.1 release marked “the first time Apple has issued an official press release for a non-major mobile software release unrelated to a new device since 2010”.

Also this:

At the same time, Apple communications staff have recently sent reporters more favorable third-party reports about the company, including a study predicting that by 2014, Apple will be as accepted in the enterprise as Microsoft is today.

Apple, and indeed virtually all its competitors, send reporters favorable studies from time to time. But the five reports Apple has sent since the start of the year, mostly related to mobile market share, represent more than recent months.

The articles needs a little explaining.

I’ve been bloggin’ for a livin’ for years, but never, ever in my fifteen year journalism career have I received a response from Apple’s PR people.

Not once.

I even don’t know any fellow journalist who did, for that matter.

Apple event 20120307 (iPAd 3 unveiling, Tim Cook, colorful background, Apple logo)

Most companies will explore every possible venue in order to get their word out.

Apple plays its cards carefully. Instead of dealing with hundreds – and possibly thousands – of Apple blogs, the company’s PR staff talks to big media outlets, namely The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Bloomberg.

And by the virtue of online journalism, cheers these publications run get re-blogged across the blogosphere. Presto – instant coverage and millions of dollars of free advertising for Apple.

That’s how this games is being played.

In a sense, WSJ, NYT and Bloomberg are unofficial Apple mouthpieces.

It always pays to realize who’s reporting on news, not just what’s being reported on. So, whenever you see any of these publications break Apple news based on chit-chats with the obligatory “people familiar on the matter”, rest assured it was a controlled leak.

Samsung TV teaser (CES 2013, fake newspaper cover)
Of all rivals, only Samsung approaches PR buzz levels of Apple,
by copying Apple’s paranoid secrecy.

They call it access journalism.

And because WSJ, NYT and Bloomberg are all Apple’s bitches, they rarely criticize the company. In exchange, they secure guaranteed access to Apple’s top dogs.

That’s actually one of the reasons I’m so confident Apple is working on a budget iPhone, given the meme was extensively reported on by WSJ.

Unlike the blogosphere at large, the credulous WSJ, NYT and Bloomberg will never risk their credibility by running a crazy rumor for the rumor’s sake. That is, unless someone from Apple winked at this or that.

On top of big media, Apple also maintains a healthy relationship with a select few blogs, like The Verge, Daring Fireball and The Loop.

For example, whenever an Apple media event or some other speculation needs confirming, The Loop through the mouth of its founder Jim Dalrymple throws its proverbial “yup” or “nope”.

The Loop (yep screenshot)

That alone is enough to establish the veracity of said rumor in no ambiguous terms. The point is: Jim Dalrymple has deep connections with Apple’s PR department because Apple chose this prominent blogger as an unofficial bearer of non-essential news.

Apple pundit John Gruber, who runs the popular Daring Fireball blog, is another illustrative example of that. Nearly a year ago, the lucid Gruber noticed a change in Apple’s public relations direction when he and a few other fellow journalists were invited to a hotel suite in January 2012 for a private demo of the then unreleased OS X Mountain Lion.

Here’s Gruber’s anecdotal description:

“We’re starting to do some things differently,” Phil Schiller said to me.

We were sitting in a comfortable hotel suite in Manhattan just over a week ago. I’d been summoned a few days earlier by Apple PR with the offer of a private “product briefing”. I had no idea heading into the meeting what it was about. I had no idea how it would be conducted. This was new territory for me, and I think, for Apple.

The meeting was structured and conducted very much like an Apple product announcement event. But instead of an auditorium with a stage and theater seating, it was simply with a couch, a chair, an iMac, and an Apple TV hooked up to a Sony HDTV.

And instead of a room full of writers, journalists, and analysts, it was just me, Schiller, and two others from Apple — Brian Croll from product marketing and Bill Evans from PR. (From the outside, at least in my own experience, Apple’s product marketing and PR people are so well-coordinated that it’s hard to discern the difference between the two.)

Handshakes, a few pleasantries, good hot coffee, and then, well, then I got an Apple press event for one.

Outside this inner circle of trusted journos, rarely anyone is able to penetrate Apple’s walls of secrecy, with one notable exception: 9to5Mac and its Mark Gurman (along with founder Seth Weintraub who gets assistance from Jordan Kahn).

Gurman, 9to5Mac’s star 18-year-old blogger, in particular has been leading the pack with accurate predictions, nearly all of them later proving true.

Mark Gurman (image 001)
Teen phenom blogger Mark Gurman has the most scoops in the Apple blogging biz.
Pictured at WWDC 2012, via Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt. 

Gurman has some damn good sources in Apple’s supply chain in China, in addition to those entrenched behind the thick walls of Apple’s 1 Infinite Loop headquarters in Cupertino, California. In the crazy re-blogging business, that’s enough to become one of the most successful Apple blogs out there.

Summing up,  Apple under Tim Cook is doing public relations a little bit differently than the Steve Jobs Apple – all because of competition.

Lead image (via BusinessInsider): Tim Cook, Apple’s VP of Communciations Katie Cotton and Jacqui Cheng, Senior Apple Editor at Ars Technica.