A few days ago, I found myself emailing the press email address of a major corporation for a story for another website. It didn't get back to me, despite my wanting basic commentary on a positive article. It reminded me of my time in the games industry working at a smaller publication deemed "not important" by some of the larger gaming companies--and of the style of PR that Apple has employed for as long as I can remember (though never experienced).
In fact, the recent exit of Apple's PR chief of 18 years, Katie Cotton, revealed (thanks to Valleywag's frank article) a cold, detached front--a gatekeeper versus a PR person, described as "polite but rarely helpful" by Fortune's Miguel Helft.
Yet many in the media declared at length that she was superb at her job--perhaps because she provided them with what they needed, perhaps for fear of being cut off, à la Porsche. Nevertheless, some seem to think that you can learn something from Cotton's reign: eighteen years, most of which dealt with some of the most lusted-after technological hardware, and holding the reins to one of the most important CEOs in history.
Dan Lyons, marketing fellow at Hubspot but more important a notable technology journalist who commented on Apple for many years, says you can learn a lot from Apple's PR. One of his lessons--and I respect Dan immensely--verges on irresponsible. He claims that "...the best way to get any of [that Apple-style] coverage is to pretend that you don't want any of that coverage. Be secretive. Be mysterious. Talk less. Make people curious." That's just not true. (And I don't say that because it's my business.) Smaller companies cannot simply play coy and hope that the press will get so unerringly curious that it will magic up an article and come knocking. Nobody at Time or TechCrunch is banging on your door because you won't grant him or her an interview. I imagine he or she just won't like you.
Lyons also uses an example of how IBM's CEO "couldn't see how having his face on the cover of a magazine would accomplish [sales]"--something that Apple literally wouldn't agree with.
The one lesson that does make sense is Cotton's steel will during a crisis. That lesson? Perfect. Stay cool. Control the information. Perhaps don't lie. But if it's a health condition, there's every reason to be quiet. It is, after all, someone's private life.
In the end, though, you are not running Apple. You are not selling the iPhone. Your CEO is not Steve Jobs.
Now, if you have something that's truly marvelous and already famous, then this strategy might work. But that's the vast minority of PR campaigns. That's what leads me to my three lessons on why Apple's PR strategy does not work.
1. All good press is good press.
Unless time or stock makes it impossible to do so, you should endeavor to help the press. There will never be enough time for everyone, but your goal should be to be as helpful as you can if someone is planning to or could potentially write about you. Lyons's short view that you should be mysterious and selective fails to understand how people read the press or how the press works.
Small outlets drive traffic. They're also read by other reporters. They're also read by, potentially, different people than the big outlets' audience. There is nothing to be gained from being picky if someone wants something from you. He or she is helping you by writing about you. Even a piece that digs in and critiques the product is, ultimately, useful. It's feedback. Then again, if your product sucks, and you're still pushing it, that's another problem entirely.
Furthermore, that person you refused an interview--or worse still, didn't answer? He or she could get a job at an outlet you're very interested in tomorrow. And people tend to remember both the person who helped them out and equal parts the person who stonewalled them because he or she "wasn't important enough." That's a bad taste to leave in someone's mouth.
2. Your product probably isn't the iPhone.
Every single reporter I know gets at least a hundred emails a day. I'd argue at least once every time I meet a new reporter, I hear a lament about the amount of new products thrown his or her way, and how he or she has to ignore them. You need to realize that we are in a different world to Apple's: Your product is going up against thousands of mail-merging idiots, off-pitching things the reporter may or may not want.
On top of that, if you're a PR agency (or in-house) pitching something, it probably needs the push to get press anyway. That means it's not automatically sexy enough to get written about by default. Even if your client thinks he or she is the next Steve Jobs or that he or she has created the Next Big Thing, the chances are that unless you can shrug the ego and talk about it honestly, it'll probably flop. Unless you're lucky, in which case, know that you're lucky and not just that good.
3. Your CEO isn't Steve Jobs. (But you can train him or her to be.)
Steve Jobs was charismatic, intelligent, quotable, and memorable, unlike 99 percent of CEOs I've met. I don't know what happened internally at Apple PR, but I'm going to guess Cotton didn't sit down with Jobs and tell him what to say. Jobs was what I'd call an ICBM: You simply pointed him at the interview, and he blew it up. In a good way.
It's horrible to admit, but many CEOs aren't that good without some training. Some aren't even trainable, meaning that you'll simply have to make them useful: full of data, facts, and things the reporter might not know.
Worse still, many PR people train CEOs badly. They throw softball questions at them or train them to pontificate uselessly on issues instead of being useful. You should try and break a CEO before a reporter can with the worst possible questions and then rebuild him or her--and train him or her to have a conversation, like Jobs seemed to every interview. Was it real? Was it trained? Jobs never felt as if he was repeating a company line because he was so conversational--even though, every single time, he absolutely was.
You cannot transmute your CEO into Steve Jobs. In fact, don't copy anyone else. Try to find the individual qualities and originalities of your client's product, but more important, your client.
One of my biggest media successes in Silicon Valley has been a 26-year-old guy from Texas with big hairy arms and a gritty and loud voice. I'm pretty sure the reporters wouldn't like him if he slapped on a black turtleneck and started pausing every few seconds.