Most of the Western world awoke yesterday to media alerts that an iPhone bug was letting people use FaceTime to eavesdrop. It was covered by outlets from the Guardian to Good Morning America, from Business Insider to Buzzfeed. This morning’s media includes the story of a customer that tried to alert Apple more than a week ago, but no further comment from Apple itself. Despite the plethora of coverage, many details remain uncertain. Basic questions like who’s affected, what people should do, how this happened and how it will be fixed are unanswered. Angry customers have yet to hear an apology. It’s the type of crisis comms you’d expect from a scandal-rocked MP, not the world’s first trillion dollar company. Last autumn, our own Marketing Engagement Tracker found Apple to be one of the tech world’s least communicative companies.
The era of the Applequake
Has Apple’s previous success led them to hold onto an outdated communications strategy? The 2000s were marked by Applequakes, in which the market was upended by products consumers didn’t even know they desperately needed. Apple’s dedication to product excellence was matched only by its devotion to secrecy. It was a recipe for whipping up rumor and anticipation.
Apple’s emergence was the heyday of the cult of Mac, a web of blogs and early Twitter adopters sharing unconfirmed tidbits about new product releases alongside tricks they’d developed to maximize their Macs. Apple fed this ecosphere with strategic leaks and tacit support, though there were some unintended disclosures. It fostered the idea of Apple products as status symbols, helped along by a series of ads that reinforced the image of Mac as the choice for those in the know. When you’re so dominant in the marketplace, you can afford to make your customers come to you.
However, so much has changed since then; both in communications and Apple’s positioning in the marketplace. An abundance of information and social platforms have taught consumers to expect companies to be responsive, and Apple now has serious competitors for every product line. Their smartphone competition is the most serious, as iPhones bring in two thirds of Apple’s sales and their unit sales have been declining since 2015.
There are so many factors to Apple’s current volatility that it would be a fool’s errand to ascribe it to one cause. One thing it could do to shore up its customer base would be to radically revise its communications strategy.
The LEWIS Marketing Engagement Tracker, which quantifies marketing efforts, saw Apple score surprisingly low on engagement. Unlike its tech brethren, Apple’s Twitter and Facebook accounts remain largely unused for anything besides buying ads. In March of 2016, it finally launched Apple Support on Twitter, which responds in English during US business hours. This account does not post about ongoing issues, however, and the majority of their replies appear to be requests for DM/offline communication. Most of the support on Apple’s own website is a user community, which is not immediately clear to new visitors. When Apple does offer statements, or even apologies, it does so through Macosphere sites and traditional media, but never through its owned channels.
The iOS 12 debacle
The rollout of iOS 12, including the FaceTime debacle, shows just how flawed this strategy has become. It has publicly undermined, if not entirely undone, Apple’s new competitive positioning. Apple has spent the past few months framing itself as privacy advocates when competitors Google and Huawei are facing serious scrutiny. CEO Tim Cook has vocally supported data privacy initiatives and Apple has gone so far as to take out billboards saying “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone”. Now, the day of their quarterly earnings call is swamped with stories of a potentially humiliating invasion of privacy and there’s no word directly from Apple.
Apple issued statements to various outlets that they are aware of the problem and will be releasing a patch later this week. That’s it. There’s nothing on Twitter or Facebook to let users know about the issue. Their support website not only has nothing from Apple about the problem, but is still encouraging users to download iOS 12. Apple didn’t even report that they had disengaged the problem feature on FaceTime. It was discovered by a reporter browsing Apple’s system support site.
There is no word from Apple about which devices are affected. News sites have experimented to find that even FaceTime on laptops and older phones, which don’t have iOS 12, are susceptible to the problem when called by a phone that is on iOS 12. There is no word about what customers should do to protect themselves from unwanted eavesdropping. There are even reports coming out that Apple was notified about the bug more than a week ago and failed to proactively warn people or disable the feature as they finally did today.
The real bug
Apple’s announced fix of releasing a software update may also have been undermined already. iOS 12 has been plagued by issues. The first iteration found iMessages going to the wrong recipient due to a change in Apple ID functionality that was listed nowhere in the information about the iOS. The next iterations have been plagued by photo, data and Wi-Fi problems so bad that Sprint advised customers not to update. Apple’s channels did not mention problems and continued to encourage users to upgrade to iOS 12.
For years, Apple’s business model has been predicated on a devoted customer base that not only continues to buy products that are more expensive than its competitors’, but takes on the roles of support and spokesman. Can Apple continue to give its customers the silent treatment and retain their devotion? Business Insider’s coverage is running alongside a survey finding that 1 in 3 US users have no plans to upgrade their iPhones. Tim Cook admitted on the quarterly earnings call that iPhones sales are down and hinted at lowering prices, and Twitter is currently full of people swearing never to buy an iPhone again. With no substantive statement from Apple, the company may see the effect of its non-communication strategy on future sales.