FBI vs Apple: Publicity Gamble Backfires

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

April 11, 2016

It seems likely that the FBI won’t need Apple’s compliance after all in the backdoor/encryption fiasco, but it wasn’t because of any great intuition on its part. While Apple wished the matter to be more secret, i.e. motions sealed, the FBI, much to its regret, decided to make the issue more public – to paint Apple as a criminal. With the White House failing to dirty its hands in the matter, the FBI was flying solo.

It didn’t bargain on the tremendous outpouring of support for Apple from all quarters, And it forced Apple to do what it does best – put on a show. The FBI, in a face-saving maneuver, has taken the unusual step (for it) of offering its new found encryption-unlocking talents, honed in the San Bernardino case, to local law enforcement.

All this prompts the question as to why Apple decided to “go to war” with the FBI. The FBI’s ill-fated decision to go public was an obvious, anticipated ploy. What better than to tug at the heartstrings of Americans, with the hapless victims fresh in their memories? But what was Apple’s aim?

Despite its size and standing as the preeminent company in the galaxy, Apple was still able to portray itself as David versus the government agency’s Goliath, with the help of the might of a California court’s decision mandating Apple to comply, and the prosecutors unable to eschew the spotlight. And so, Apple abandoned its deferential demeanor, its heretofore buttoned-down style, which had sought to fight the battle in private, into the public consciousness.

In a corporate gathering at the time, things were heating up. Apple’s Tim Cook took the opportunity to stray from the typical product pitches in favor of addressing the dilemma du jour,

We did not expect to be in this position, at odds with our own government. But we believe strongly that we have a responsibility to help you protect your data and protect your privacy.

This salvo was aimed at the public’s growing disenchantment with government in general, and with the FBI’s “big-footed”, heavy-handed tactics in particular. Back in February, the FBI initially enjoyed the public’s backing, with the San Bernadino tragedy fresh in people’s minds. But perceptions gradually began to change, to the point where Apple found itself in an enviable public relations position – one with which it was very familiar and comfortable. By opening itself up to the public and the media in this unprecedented way, it made sure its story was heard, and its stance well-known.  It hammered home the message that principles – not just products – matter.

The FBI hoped to regain the public opinion high ground by not only parading the victims’ families before the cameras, but by assuring the world that its request was just a one-off – an isolated incident. Meanwhile, Apple’s PR machine spat out reams of information that suggested this was just the top of a very slippery slope, whose precedent could reverberate across the digital communication landscape.

Additionally, Tim Cook opened his office’s doors to the national media – an office festooned with photos of prominent civil rights and libertarians such as Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The intended message was clear: Cook cares as much about civil liberties as he does about selling iPhones.

Since security, trust and encryption are the backbones of Apple’s success, this proactive PR approach was necessary. It showed the world that principles and privacy are core American values. In the end, it turned out to be crucial in the FBI looking in another direction.  The only way Apple could have trumped the difficult-to-defeat cards of national security was to be more effective at wrapping itself in the flag. As public relations and communications expert Sam Singer observed to Wired,

It’s a genius marketing strategy to grab the American flag and wrap yourself in the mantle of free speech and privacy. Two things Americans value above all else.

Somehow, the feeling here is that Apple will have to trot out the strategy again many times in the not-too-distant future, as the FBI is tenacious and the targets many.

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