Friday, February 17, 2012



Yesterday Apple announced
Mountain Lion, a new iteration of OS X.

Or, more accurately, Daring Fireball and Apple's personal press corp announced Mountain Lion.

John Gruber is a Apple commentator and tech blogger. I've been reading
his site for years and years—I have a couple of Daring Fireball t-shirts which I'm quite fond of from back in the day, and his site is unquestionably one of the best designed.

Yesterday he published
an extraordinary story—basically he broke the news about Mountain Lion.

Of course, he's not alone and didn't
really break the story—a lot of journalists all voluntarily embargoed news about Mountain Lion, and published simultaneously.

But what is exceptional is that he writes about the experience in the first person, which gives us insight into Apple PR methodologies:

We were sitting in a comfortable hotel suite in Manhattan just over a week ago. I’d been summoned a few days earlier by Apple PR with the offer of a private “product briefing”. I had no idea heading into the meeting what it was about. I had no idea how it would be conducted. This was new territory for me, and I think, for Apple.

When Mr. Gruber was "summoned", he says it was a few days earlier. Does Apple put him up in a midtown Manhattan hotel room while he awaits his audience? Why has he been there for a few days—does Apple summon tech journalists and bloggers and stash them in hotel rooms until they are ready for them?

Perhaps he means he was contacted a few days previously. I'm not entirely being snarky—I'm trying to illustrate the power relationship. The point is that Apple snaps its fingers, and people respond.

The meeting was structured and conducted very much like an Apple product announcement event. But instead of an auditorium with a stage and theater seating, it was simply with a couch, a chair, an iMac, and an Apple TV hooked up to a Sony HDTV. And instead of a room full of writers, journalists, and analysts, it was just me, Schiller, and two others from Apple — Brian Croll from product marketing and Bill Evans from PR.

So tech journalists and bloggers are led into a room, and a team of people who run arguably the most powerful tech company in the world do a full presentation entirely just for them. But they don't come as a group—they are divided off, one at a time.

Is there any other rationale for the extreme effort of doing this, over and over, than the obvious?

By dividing them, you can control your audience. By letting only one person in at a time, you can keep tight hold of your messaging—the chances of someone asking an uncomfortable question about anything is significantly lessened.

Many companies would like to run their announcements this way. Not many do, because a free press doesn't stand for it, as it is incredibly restrictive. But Apple can and does get treatment other companies wouldn't, and they exploit that.

(From the outside, at least in my own experience, Apple’s product marketing and PR people are so well-coordinated that it’s hard to discern the difference between the two.)

Submitted without comment.

There many new features, I’m told, but today they’re going to focus on telling me about ten of them. This is just like an Apple event, I keep thinking.

It must be incredibly flattering to receive this kind of personal attention. So personal that they make a point of doing it separately to every influential tech journalist and blogger whom they are talking to—enough of them that it took days, perhaps even a week, and certainly involved bringing a number of people from different places to this suite in Midtown and others like it.

This is an awful lot of effort and attention in order to brief what I’m guessing is a list of a dozen or two writers and journalists. It’s Phil Schiller, spending an entire week on the East Coast, repeating this presentation over and over to a series of audiences of one. There was no less effort put into the preparation of this presentation than there would have been if it had been the WWDC keynote address.

It could also be that rehearsed because Apple knows how important it is to control messaging at this moment. They have been giving this same message, again and again, to each tech journalist and blogger in these private sessions. Apple can't afford unsightly and embarrassing questions about labor, or life after Steve Jobs—hence the incredible control.

Apple is not exactly known for sharing details of as-yet-unannounced products, even if only just one week in advance. Why not hold an event to announce Mountain Lion — or make the announcement on before talking to us?

That’s when Schiller tells me they’re doing some things differently now.

I wonder immediately about that “now”. I don’t press, because I find the question that immediately sprang to mind uncomfortable.

Good for you, Mr. Gruber. It should make you uncomfortable.

And I think it is great that he describes what it feels like in the room—how hard it is to press, how hard it is to ask direct questions that there is even a feeling might be unwelcome.

How much of this positioning found its way into the Mountain Lion coverage that landed on the web yesterday in a carefully coordinated simultaneous drop? How could Apple have been so confident no one would possibly go rogue and scoop anyone else?

Simple—a trusted relationship. The people being given these briefings need access to Apple. They need to make certain Apple remains happy.

And some things remain unchanged: Apple executives explain what they want to explain, and they explain nothing more.

Ain't that the truth?

It is remarkable that Apple could let its top executives spend a week briefing a small number of influential tech journalists and bloggers...but it can not find the time to do a press conference about labor conditions that have been making headlines around the world.

Look, I get that being a tech journalist is hard—a lot of the job is reviewing devices, and you need access for that to happen more effectively than the next person. I've been around the block, and I've talked to many of you off the record. I'm well aware that Apple doesn't have to invite anyone to their special briefings.

But that cuts both ways. Journalists don't have to agree to attend these briefings, either. And I'm questioning the intimacy of the relationship Apple forges with a selected group of the most powerful voices in tech journalism.

I wouldn't be making a point of this if tech reviewers only reviewed devices and nothing else. But we all know that's not how the world works—tech journalists and prominent bloggers set the tone for technology. They decide in large part if what the tenor is of our discourse—what is and is not a story.

Tech journalists whose pageviews and popularity depend on access to Apple have been active in discussions of Foxconn and Apple's labor practices—of course they have. It's a very valid question to examine how Apple's role as kingmaker affects our coverage.

Apple is masterful at manipulating the media cycle—everyone knows that. But now it's not just about who has the best device. It's about labor, and lives, and the stakes have never been higher.

All I'm asking is that we start really talking about it. Now.

For starters—can we get some public disclosures? Who participated in these Mountain Lion briefings? Who received devices? We can make a list based on what reviews dropped yesterday, but I'd much rather see people be forthright about it.

And once we've all admitted that this happens—how does it affect coverage? Of the industry? Of Apple? Is tech journalism capable of looking at itself in the mirror and talking about how their sausage gets made?

I'm not asking that people agree with me—I'm asking that the debate happen more fully in the open.

I believe it can happen. I believe there are people writing about tech every day who understand that this needs to happen. Journalists know that Apple has long practiced a level of PR spin, often with the unspoken threat of the loss of access, unparalleled in this industry.

Everyone knows that—it's one of the things everyone admired about Steve Jobs.

You know, I keep getting asked by reporters, again and again, how a story of this size and scale escaped reporting for years at a time.

When I began my investigations over three years ago there was already a large number of reports from NGOs and human rights groups on abuses at Foxconn and across the SEZ—how could technology, a field so important that it has its own brand of journalists, have failed to see it? It's clearly their story, but an entire field filled with smart people didn't tell an enormously important story. What happened?

I'll be talking about this more in upcoming weeks, but yesterday's announcement is a piece of that puzzle.