I have asked six people with senior positions in techie professions who they thought "does great PR" in the tech sector. Now these individuals are not in marketing and PR functions, so you'll forgive my casual turn of phrase I hope.
You might know I detest the idea that you might "PR something", as if PR is as tactical and atomic as picking up the phone or putting a release on a wire, but I deliberately didn't wish to infect them with my view of public relations excellence. I wanted to hear what they'd say unprompted, unguided.
Each proffered two or three companies. Samsung and IBM were mentioned twice. Google thrice. But out front with four mentions was Apple.
Now anyone who follows the world's first or second largest publicly traded corporation in the world by market capitalization (it swaps places regularly with Exxon Mobil) will know that they're actually quite a secretive bunch. Steve Jobs infected the company with the idea that it knows what's best for the customer, and any idea that it should work with the rest of us in defining future products and services appears plain counter-cultural.
If you, like me, define public relations as pursuing mutual understanding to build goodwill, the PR function at Apple appears quite asymmetric. As and when it suits its agenda, they'll tell you. Otherwise get back in line. End of. I always feel a reluctance on Apple's part to discuss its contractors' labour practices, its own environmental and business practices, and the occasional product mess up.
I can think of a hundred companies more open and communicative than Apple, more transparent and willing to bring you into the fold. So how come my half dozen correspondents regard it so highly?
I think the answer is simple, and funnily enough relates back to that definition of public relations – and not the one I thought they might have. It appears my assumptions were somewhat misplaced.
Apple delivers awesome products and services. They work. Beautifully. And through the products, and the Genius Bars in their stores, they delight their customers. Apple's approach to PR is to make a promise that exceeds anything else on the market, often by some margin, and then to deliver it near flawlessly. Its customers conclude "Apple gets me".
In other words, not only is public relations far more than the media relations activity it's often taken to be, it's a function permeating the entire organisation. There is influence in everything an organisation does, and sometimes in what it doesn't do.
But Apple's over-arching attitude is risky.
No company can rely on 'talking through their products' consistently for ever. Unless Apple has alighted on a previously unknown strategic elixir, there will come a time when they need a more robust community constructed around a nexus of shared values rather than a shared love of the iPad. Some Apple fanboys will argue this already exists, but I'd argue they only feel it through the product.
Apple needs to adapt its culture and inculcate PR excellence now, before it really needs it.
Here's the full definition of PR I go by:
The profession of public relations entails the planned and sustained effort to influence opinion and behaviour, and to be influenced similarly, in order to build mutual understanding and goodwill.
This process is critical to maintaining and growing relevance, reputation and trust, and therefore public relations is central to setting and achieving organisational objectives.