Apple’s social media policy is just as closed as the rest of the company

A website published the tech company’s social media policy, revealing (or confirming) that Apple isn’t the most forward thinking company in terms of transparency.

Back in 2005, when IBM first encouraged its employees to blog publicly about their work, the company explained the initiative in part by noting that no marketing campaign could evangelize the company’s work better than its own employees.

In recent years, it has become more common for organizations to find ways to get employees into the social media space to represent the company.

Coca-Cola has a certification program. Dell has its Social Media and Communities (SMaC) group. Sprint has its ninjas. And virtually every social media policy you see—hundreds of which are posted publicly—includes a clause instructing employees talking about work to identify themselves as employees.

Apple’s social media policy for employees is not among those you can find online—until now. Reports have surfaced today that the policy has been leaked. This should come as no surprise, because that’s what happens to non-transparent organizations in a world gone increasingly digital and social.

It’s also no surprise that the policy doesn’t reflect the trend in most organizations. Whereas most employees are asked to disclose their affiliation when writing a blog post about their companies, Apple allows employees to have blogs but forbids them to discuss the company at all. Employees cannot post comments on third-party Apple- and Mac-related sites.

There are more reasons than those cited nearly seven years ago by IBM for using engaged employees to spread the company’s messages through social channels. For example, The Altimeter Group’s social media preparedness study demonstrates that trained employees who are permitted to engage lead to fewer and less-damaging crises.

Apple, conversely, is all about secrecy. When it comes to opacity, Apple makes Enron look like a poster child for transparency. As for engaging employees, Apple lore includes tales of unsavory tactics that target all employees in an effort to hunt down the few bad apples (pun unintentional) who leak information.

I don’t have a clue what kind of engagement scores Apple would earn (or whether the company has ever assessed how engaged its workforce is), but because trust is a foundation of engagement, you have to believe that being spied on doesn’t do much to make employees feel engaged.

When Steve Jobs died, mainstream and social media sources were filled with items about how to be a CEO like Jobs. What a terrible idea. The fact is that Apple’s ability to crank out stunning products that people just had to have enabled corporate behaviors that would be reviled and decried anywhere else.

There were Jobs characteristics that are certainly worth emulating. His passion for product excellence, his focus on gorgeous design, and his uncanny ability to invent markets where one had never existed before would be enviable traits in any leader.

But when it comes to leadership, emulating Jobs would mean:

  • Not trusting your employees.
  • Not giving anything back. Jobs said he didn’t believe in giving money away. Interestingly, those on the political right argue that government doesn’t need entitlement programs for those unable to take care of themselves because business, if freed of onerous taxes, would take care of those programs themselves. Not under Apple’s philosophy.
  • Not giving much of a crap about the environment.
  • Sending jobs offshore.
  • Flat-out lying as a marketing tactic.
  • Suing its fans.
  • Not listening to customers, whose job it wasn’t, Jobs said, to know what they want. The sound principles covered in The Social Customer Manifesto would carry no weight in a company seeking to emulate Jobs’ approach.
  • Not engaging customers at all. Apple doesn’t blog, isn’t on Twitter, maintains no Facebook page. (Some of Apple’s services—such as iTunes and the App store—are on Twitter.)
  • Engaging in questionable activities. For instance, searching an employees’ home by getting the San Francisco Police Department to accompany Apple security to the employee’s house and not doing anything to let the employee know the security personnel weren’t also SFPD.

And this is just a starter list. (Here are more reasons.)

I raise all this because, as we move toward Jobs’ deification, some leaders may look at Apple’s social media policy and think it’s the right approach for their own organizations.

Unless your company is made of Teflon, as Apple is, and can withstand any criticism or crisis because people will line up for your products no matter what, engagement and transparency will serve you better than closing the windows, locking the doors, and isolating the organization.

The U.S. military has figured that out. So have a lot of very large and successful organizations.

In short, adopting Apple’s product focus is great, but not so much for its other business practices.

Incidentally, early word is that Apple’s new CEO, Tim Cook, is already taking steps to turn a lot of this around. If he succeeds, I’ll look forward to reading the contributions of Apple employees.

I’ll probably buy an iPad, too.

A version of this story first appeared on the Holtz Communication + Technology blog.

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