Apple comms under microscope

Consumer Reports' review of the iPhone 4 is the latest in a series of setbacks around the debut of Apple's latest smartphone.

When Consumer Reports came out and said it could not recommend the iPhone 4, it was the latest in a series of setbacks around the debut of Apple's latest smartphone. Plagued by reception issues, particularly when held a certain way, the iPhone 4 has attracted an onslaught of criticism from the media and consumers. Now, Steve Jobs' notoriously tight-lipped computer firm has come into the open and is holding a press conference today (Friday July 16), but is still keeping mum about what exactly is going to happen.

Some expect the company to release a software fix for the issue, while others wonder whether Apple will recall the device. But because there is a relatively simple fix—a bumper case—a recall seems too costly and unlikely, says David Chamberlin, SVP and director of issues and crisis management at MS&LGroup.

"Providing bumper cases, at this point, is something they have to do," he says, noting that action would help the company get back in consumers' good graces, fix the issue without a recall, and just make sense.

"In hindsight, it would have been ideal for them to have dealt with this issue on the day of its introduction, instead of waiting until launch day or even after their consumers discovered it on their own," he adds. Waiting so long to address the issue with a press conference, he adds, has hurt the brand.

Tony Hynes, West Coast GM at Bite Communications, which used to work with Apple in the UK before it brought comms in-house, notes that the timing is unfortunate for the iconic technology firm, which has already dealt with a lost prototype of the iPhone 4 in April and the subsequent raid and investigation of the Gizmodo blog that wrote about it - both of which damaged its reputation.

Additionally, since the reception issue became more and more widespread, reports have surfaced of conflicts inside the company, and antenna engineers previously warning CEO Jobs that the design would affect reception.

"This is a profound issue, not just around the phone, but also a corporate issue for them, and a perception issue going forward," Hynes says. "I don't know whether they are looking at any of the crisis firms or considering talking to them, but that would be a prudent thing for them to do."

The company is looking at the problem through the eyes of an engineer, when it needs to look at it from a consumer's perspective, Chamberlin says. Apple originally told consumers to simply hold the phone a certain way, or buy the $29 bumper. The company did not return calls or e-mails for comment for this piece.

But the press conference, which was announced July 14, suggests the company is taking a positive step in being more transparent, even though Apple has been super-secretive about what exactly will be announced.

"They're not an organization that's used to transparency and they are used to having extremely tight control over all their messaging," Hynes says. "Jobs is implicitly involved in everything. It has to come from Jobs."

But while the press conference is a step towards transparency, it still gives Apple the opportunity to control its message and present it in a way it sees fit.

"This is not the BP spill by any stretch of the imagination, but at the same time, this has gone on now for two or three weeks," says Chamberlin. "They've got the opportunity to do something here that helps them long term and makes people feel better about the Apple brand."

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