Media Relations: Apple blazes new trail with suit against overeager blog

Apple is suing one of its biggest supporters for promoting its wares before the company could unveil them. Is that any way to treat the media?

Apple is suing one of its biggest supporters for promoting its wares before the company could unveil them. Is that any way to treat the media?

When Apple sued news website Think Secret earlier this month for posting trade secrets, it embarked on what could be a landmark experiment in media relations. One, it furthered the already teeming debate on who should be given journalistic protections. It also called into question a company's abilities and rationale for keeping leaks at bay while gearing up for a public unveiling. But the most intriguing question is for Apple itself: How vigorously should a company guard its secrecy in a world of rabid citizen journalists, especially one whose unique cult status is largely fueled by those journalists? It's a question appropriately asked now, as Apple seeks its second mainstream success after the iPod phenomenon, the Mac Mini, a product that stands to attract new enthusiasts even as it alienates old ones who cherish their cult membership. Apple is famously protective of its trade secrets and product rollouts. While some manufacturers will post the details of exactly what they are unveiling at a trade show like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) or give journalists a sneak peak, Apple not only meticulously keeps all information under wraps until the last possible moment, it forgoes the CES for its own spotlight, the Macworld Expo, where CEO Steve Jobs can hold the main stage as long as he wants. Apple's 2005 expo took place a few days after CES wrapped up this month. The company announced two major products: the iPod shuffle, a smaller, flash-based MP3 player; and the Mac Mini, the company's first major attempt to challenge the PC market in decades. These product announcements were similar to rumors posted on ThinkSecret.com last month. So Apple, which declined comment for this story, quickly filed suit against the site for disclosing trade secrets. "Apple is completely wrong, and there's no basis for its lawsuit," says Terry Gross, lawyer for Think Secret's editor, Nicholas Ciarelli. "The lawsuit [falsely] holds a journalist civilly liable for something they legally obtained." Gross says that he has heard from a lot of people who are upset over Apple's actions. He adds, "We've had a number of lawyers volunteer to help, and I'm getting e-mails from people saying, 'This is a wonderful thing you're doing.'" Response of bloggers Many companies have been attacked for ignoring bloggers or failing to engage the emerging online ecosystem. Sometimes these stories break into the mainstream press, but more often they fade away as bloggers turn to new foes. In Apple's case, many bloggers seem to be rallying around Think Secret, calling Apple a bully and its tactics overreaching. Jason Calacanis, chairman of Weblogs Inc., publisher of about 60 blogs, recently posted "An Open Letter to Steve Jobs (or, Shutting Down our Apple Blog)" on his personal site. In it, he claims that Apple needs bloggers as much as they need the company, and he threatens to take down Weblogs' unofficial Apple site if the company insists on suing the media. But he received a slew of comments from Apple enthusiasts who claimed Calacanis was wrong and that Steve Jobs had a right to protect the company's IP and ideas through a lawsuit. "Apple has historically been one of the more aggressive companies protecting its launch date," says former Sun VP Andy Lark. "It's only natural that they would do anything in their power [to protect leaks]." Lark says he totally commiserated with Apple's desire to protect information, but couldn't condone the company taking legal action against media sites. But not all bloggers were completely critical of Apple's stance. One is Laurie Duncan, a blogger for the unofficial Apple weblog at Calacanis' network. Duncan said that her initial reaction was that Think Secret was getting what it deserved by posting the rumors. "I was tired of my Christmas being ruined," she says, referring to the moment when Jobs finally unveils the new Apple products. "I don't think we're entitled to know [ahead of time]." Apple has long been associated with a "cult brand" status, in which the company and its employees are seen as infallible. Calacanis says it would take a grave, nefarious feat for Jobs to be criticized by his acolytes. Al Ries, branding expert and chairman of Ries & Ries Consulting, has a prime example of Apple's branding power. Ries says his daughter, Laura, president of the firm, paid full price for a rebuilt iPod because she was so desperate to have the sold-out MP3 player. But even Duncan was disappointed with Apple's suit. She adds to her assessment: "When I thought about it more, I [determined] Apple is taking it a bit too far; suing [Think Secret] is not worth anyone's time." Lark thinks that Apple is failing to have a "conversation" with blogs, a different breed of media that might be more inclined to break away because they don't need the relationships as much as their mainstream media counterparts. But through her relationships and her full-time job repairing Macintosh computers, Duncan is also privy to new products for which she has to sign releases and does not want to jeopardize that relationship by posting nonpublic information. For instance, she has a copy of Apple's yet-to-be-unveiled operating software, Tiger. By posting that information, she'd effectively jeopardize her ability to be kept in the loop. "There's no incentive for me to do that for 15 minutes of fame," Duncan says. "I have far more to lose than to gain." Apple's insularity Lark agrees that there are going to be people who want to get the product unveilings from the company itself. But he says the theory that Apple evangelists might prefer Apple to be uncommunicative because of its "cool" persona is "nonsensical." But Duncan's opinion about leaking company trade secrets has more to do with just maintaining relationships. "I don't agree with [everything] Apple does, but if [it wasn't] that way, we would not be as fascinated with [it]. The less we know, the more we want to know," Duncan says. "Marketing is part of the package, and Apple presents [itself] as aloof, elitist, cool, and obnoxious to a lot of people," she says, admitting that this technique only creates more insularity. "But I'm one of those people." Lark says that Apple is clearly targeting the mainstream audience with the iPod and the Mac Mini, and to suggest that it wishes to retain its small market share as a branding strategy is "about the most nonsensical thing I've ever heard." Instead, he says that Apple will continue to branch out with one series of products, while keeping core products for the enthusiasts. Despite Apple's recent triumphs, Ries points out what might be considered heresy in today's market: Apple doesn't have the best of track records. The Cube, which many people find similar to the new Mac Mini, was a disaster, owing to its high price point. The Newton, a personal digital assistant precursor to today's successes, was an abysmal failure. Calacanis says that it's probably easy for Apple to be guarded and uncommunicative when it is currently riding one success story after another. He warns, however, that "inevitable speed bumps" challenge all tech companies, and enthusiasts might not be as forgiving if the products aren't there. But Calacanis still considers Apple to be an innovator, and Lark says he's a "die-hard Apple fan and PowerBook user." "I want a Mac Mini; I think it's a cool product," Calacanis says. "There are people who would [create] their whole house [with Apple products]." The disconnect between criticism and praise might not be as difficult to understand as it might seem. "Remember," Ries points out, "people will still buy from stores where they get badly treated by the employees."

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