Apple, Google, Microsoft: Whose PR approach is the most effective?

The Guardian's technology editor Charles Arthur gives his opinion on the different PR strategies employed by the world's largest technology firms.

Tech giants: an insider's view of their PR (Getty Images)
Tech giants: an insider's view of their PR (Getty Images)

I've been writing about technology for a couple of decades now. Both technology writers and PR professionals face a problem in trying to produce coverage that will interest the average person: most people have only heard of a few companies, and actually care about even fewer.

These days, those few companies tend to be in the US. So both journalists and PROs have a challenge getting to the people and the stories. Time zones and travel schedules fight you. I often envy colleagues in politics, or media, or sports such as football, whose interviewees are (comparatively) right on their doorsteps.

Things are changing. For example, the explosion of Tech City in London in the past few years is making a big difference. But the big money is still in the US (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), creating the continual problem of getting a quote out of someone who actually knows.

In writing my book Digital Wars, about Apple, Google and Microsoft and their many business battles over the past 15 years, I had plenty of time to reflect on the different companies' PR strategies. One of the first things I did was to seek formal interviews. They mostly turned me down. But that wasn't an obstacle: if you're on LinkedIn and have Skype, you can track down pretty much anyone who used to work anywhere. And I still had my contacts inside the companies.

In contrast to the 'big three', the typical technology company - and someone doing their PR - has the opposite problem: getting people interested. With dozens of topics jostling for attention all the time, you need either a 'fancy that!' story ('my website is actually powered by cats' - no, I made that up) or to grab the coattails of a topical subject. From the number of phone calls and emails I get, my impression is the struggle for coverage can be desperate. Especially if you've over-promised how much national print coverage the client will get.

The three big tech companies - Apple, Google and Microsoft - however, have rather different PR strategies. Here's my take on them, as someone on what you could call the receiving end.

APPLE - SECRETIVE

Apple iPad

Apple's PR approach is, generally, 'we'll say what we want, when we want, to whom we carefully choose'. People think it's a silent monolith, which it often is. But it was like that back in the days when the iPod was new and Apple was comparatively tiny. Its approach has pretty much always been to let the products speak for themselves. In addition, secrecy is a big part of its success: Apple gets a giant publicity boost from letting expectation build up ahead of a new iPhone or product. Just look at the fascination about the possibility of an Apple TV. There's no 'background briefing' ahead of time. Apple is completely silent about it.

Despite the fact that people - well, journalists - love to focus on the cult of personality around (previously) Steve Jobs and (still) Jonathan Ive, partly because people give better interviews than gadgets, the company itself doesn't play ball.

Its PR team is also very small compared with the level of interest in the company, and with the company itself; Apple has the biggest market value in the world and, last Christmas quarter, the biggest quarterly revenue. But the media team isn't singled out for low recruitment; Apple has incredibly small teams proportional to its size and sales everywhere except its stores. Also, requests often get bounced back up to the mothership in Cupertino, California. Even when a subject is important, Apple may choose not to respond.

For example, despite my having sought a response in plenty of time about the iPhone storing a 'map' of phone masts users had linked to - effectively a map of where they had been - the company decided simply not to comment. The story, when it came out, led to questions in the US Congress and, soon, changes to the iPhone software.

I think Apple often prefers to see how big a story becomes and then react. It's the classic problem for big companies stretched over continents.

Social media: There are no official Apple blogs. It doesn't have an active presence on Facebook or Twitter (apart from some auto-tweets from the iTunes Store). Marketing chief Phil Schiller is on Twitter (@pschiller) but doesn't interact much. Many other Apple staff are, but keep very quiet; no beans are ever spilt.

GOOGLE - OFF THE RECORD

Google

The modern Google hates to leave fingerprints. I've been dealing with it since it was a comparatively small company back in 2003/04. Google started out not being interested in PR - co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin used to chat to journalists in the very early days, but they didn't really see the point in marketing. Like Apple, they thought the products should speak for themselves.

That's changed as it has got bigger and come into more direct rivalry with Microsoft and, more recently, Facebook.

Page and Brin give the occasional high-profile interview (Brin recently with The Guardian, Page to Businessweek). But it's not the plucky little start-up any more; it's the big beast - so big the EC is deliberating over whether to launch an antitrust action, as it previously did with giant names like Microsoft and Intel.

It has also had to work hard reassuring people over privacy, given the rows in the past couple of years over YouTube and copyright, Google Maps and Google StreetView (with satellite pics of people's homes), Google StreetView's Wi-Fi data capture (a horrendous privacy gaffe that hasn't gone away), and most recently the changes to its privacy policies, rolling them into one.

There are few public faces in the company. And even in briefings, it prefers not to stick its head over the parapet. Read stories about Google in any country, and in time you'll find the magic phrase 'sources close to', which actually means 'the company, but unofficially'. The company itself offers few quotes. Instead there's plenty of 'guidance' on offer for journalists, which of course can't really be challenged in any formal way. No fingerprints, no traceability. Intriguing, for a company whose mission is 'to organise the world's information and make it accessible'.

Social media: Google has many blogs, while Page and Brin have their own Google+ pages. It eschews Facebook, but loads of the staff have blogs, are on Twitter and use Facebook.

MICROSOFT - BLOG SPIN

Microsoft

Of the three, Microsoft has the most businesses that can simply tick over. Windows and Office (which makes 105 per cent of its profits; five per cent then gets lost by various other divisions) don't really need much day-to-day PR. Most of its visible PR effort is around Xbox and Xbox Live and, to a lesser extent, its Windows Phone mobile software.

But once more, it's hamstrung by the sheer size of the business. A UK query relating to something about its general business - say, to pin down a rumour about the Xbox, or the Zune software, or Windows Phone - has to ping over to Seattle, and will often vanish into the vast maw of operations there. That's why so many journalists now rely on the MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) blogs that Microsoft's engineers write, because they feel authentic. Of course, they're actually carefully vetted and checked before publication. The clever thing is that the MSDN blogs are the spin; the press office is the formal voice.

The company also sponsors some lobbying groups, without much success. It's too easy these days to follow the money and wonder if there isn't an obvious bias. Google could always neutralise them by applying to join, but it simply ignores them.

Social media: Loads of blogs and plenty of Twitter presence (PR chief Frank Shaw @fxshaw is often biting).

WHICH WORKS BEST?

Charles Arthur

Which approach works best? One can't be categorical - their different business models mean they need different approaches. Apple's secretive approach is ideal for its 'unveiling' strategy. Microsoft's more open form approach works to drip information out to its enterprise customers, who have long lead times and have to plan. Google wants to be a bit mysterious about its inner workings; it would hate people to see that there are just loads of folk typing code into computers, rather than a magic search bar in the middle of the internet.

I don't envy the modern PR professional trying to boost the profile of a technology company; nor those who look after the 'big three'. Interest is exploding, the number of outlets ditto, and trying to prioritise who to deal with must be mind-numbing. You have my sympathies - honestly.

Arthur's new book Digital Wars: Apple, Microsoft, Google and the Battle for the Internet is published by Kogan Page, and available through bookshops and online.

Click here to watch Arthur talk to PRWeek's associate editor Kate Magee in more depth about the battle for the internet, tech PR and his dreaded inbox.

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