'Marketing' or not, Apple's thoughtful letter outdebates the FBI

Privacy vs. security is a topic most brands would rather avoid, but Apple took it on this week with a thorough, but easy to understand letter.

In its 40-year history, Apple has been on the cutting edge of computers, music devices, smartphones, and cloud services. So it’s only fitting that the company is now playing a lead role in the debate of personal privacy versus security.

It’s a conversation that people will — and should — be having for the decades to come, but one that major corporations would prefer to avoid, which is one reason Apple’s decision to wade in is so noteworthy.

To recap, the FBI asked Apple to essentially hack into the iPhone that belonged to Syed Rizwan Farook, the terrorist who, along with his wife, killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, last year. In other words, the federal law enforcement agency hadn’t been able to crack the device itself to gain a peek at its contents, so it asked Apple to create a backdoor.

Apple said no, which prompts the (valid) question of why the world’s most valuable company was unwilling or unable to pitch in to help with the investigation into a fundamentalist killer who murdered more than a dozen people. Seems like an easy choice, right?

Apple had to explain why it’s not so simple, which is why its choice of an open letter rather than a sit-down interview, press release, or series of tweets is so important.

Tim Cook, the company’s chief executive, explained its side of the story in just more than 1,100 words, clearly discussing in layman’s terms why such a request could lead to jeopardizing the privacy of its entire customer base.

What jumps off the page immediately is how eminently readable Cook’s letter is. It’s neither a jargon-heavy statement from a technology giant, nor a missive from a CEO in his ivory tower. The letter clearly lays out Apple’s case, outlying why it places such a high premium on privacy in easy-to-understand terms. It describes the company’s interaction with the FBI after the San Bernardino attacks, what could happen if a backdoor falls into the wrong hands, and why it believes the government is overreaching. And in an era of bombastic political rhetoric and CEOs issuing public statements through Twitter, the note is cordial, even polite in making its point.

In a smart take on the topic, Hill+Knowlton Strategies corporate and risk practice leader Howard Opinsky noted that "the fact that Cook is owning the decision makes it seem like an issue of conscience, rather than a decision designed solely to drive shareholder value."

"It’s likely smart for both reasons," Opinsky said via email. "And if the courts rule against Apple, the company can comply with U.S. law, but will not be accountable to its customers or foreign governments for allowing the U.S. government to access personal information."

On a practical media relations level, the letter is also easily quotable and addresses the controversy to the degree that was warranted. It is a textbook combination of strategy and tactics for making a complicated subject easier to understand.

The strategy also won Apple support from several Silicon Valley frenemies. Google CEO Sundar Pichai backed Cook on Twitter, as did Jack Dorsey. WhatsApp chief Jan Koum did likewise on Facebook. And while Mark Zuckerberg emphasized the degree to which his company is cooperating with law enforcement, he said it will stick to its principles on user privacy. 

Three days after Apple released its letter and received mostly favorable news coverage, the Justice Department asked a court to compel Apple to create a backdoor. It contended the company’s decision was "based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy" instead of public safety. 

Apple’s strategy is not without risk; there’s a reason most companies avoid these swampy questions, after all, and it remains to be seen where the courts will come down in the near term or the future. Yet for this week at least, Apple’s thoughtful strategy won the PR battle.

Frank Washkuch is news editor at PRWeek.    

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