Key insights from an Apple PR pro

After Steve Jobs’ tech giant ditched its agency in favor of in-house staff, it played things even closer to the vest, to its great advantage. Find out more from a 10-year company veteran.

I recently wrote an article titled “What I Learned From 10 Years of Doing PR for Apple” about my time with the company and the lessons learned there that I still value today:

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Value reporters’ time.
  3. Be hands on.
  4. Stay focused.
  5. Prioritize media influencers.

It was published in Harvard Business Review and has received quite a response, some of which surprises me, because I guess what I thought was normal isn’t so.

For example, why is it so odd for a CEO to read and approve press releases? I’d rate communications up there alongside reading sales spreadsheets as a key responsibility of any successful company leader. Yet, it was so unusual to others that Business Insider ran it as a headline.

I’ve also received many requests for more takeaways from my time on Apple’s PR team. Rather than respond one on one, I thought I’d pay tribute to Steve Jobs and his famous keynote line “one more thing…” and offer one or two more.

Surprise and delight

A big part of Apple’s turnaround was the surprise factor at Apple launches. Just when you thought the show was over and that everything had been announced, Steve would come back to amaze you with one more announcement guaranteed to blow your mind.

So, how did we do this? A big part of Apple’s culture was (and, I assume, still is) respecting secrecy. I can only speak for myself, but I loved the company and the thought of giving any hint about an upcoming unannounced product or piece of news was simply not in my DNA.

Sometimes this meant nodding your head for hours during press briefings when reporters would berate you for not having a particular feature or not supporting some new technology. You knew these things would be addressed in an upcoming update, and it was frustrating to listen to, but you had to take it.

The payoff would be in the launch, when invariably the company would address all these things—plus some that nobody had thought of—with its latest innovations.

You, too, can benefit from this approach by not pre-announcing news too far in advance. If you announce too early, every time there’s a slip your credibility is affected. You’re also effectively letting your competition in on your secret formula. Usually, but not always, it’s much better to announce things closer to when they ship or the news goes into effect.

An agency versus in-house PR

We were a small team relentlessly focused on telling the story of how our innovative products were enabling customers to unleash their creativity and change the world. So what PR agency did we use? When I first joined Apple’s product PR team, we were using one of the big three.

With the company’s culture of secrecy and the agency’s not being let in on upcoming announcements, they were often caught flat-footed. In successful client/agency relationships, agencies are the strategic partners who have a long-term view of the company’s vision and roadmap and help plot the course there. The agency did not have this with us and could not add as much value as they might have.

Our solution? We brought everything in-house. We hired a few more mid-level people and did everything—planning, press release writing, event planning, product review programs, momentum programs—you name it, we did it all ourselves, and it worked better than it had before.

Am I suggesting not retaining an agency is the solution for you? No, but in Apple’s case it was.

I would suggest taking a good look and a hard think about where you are now and where you want to be in the future, and then question whether you are working with the right strategic partner. I’d also recommend you review “how” you work with an agency and get feedback from them on whether there’s something you are not giving them that could help them be more effective.

I’d love to hear how you think Apple has influenced the way the world conducts marketing and PR. What was different about their approach back in the Jobs era, or now, that gives you pause to think, or to exclaim “wow” multiple times? How can others benefit from that approach? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section.

For more, please follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter @Cam_CommsGuy

A version of this post first appeared on LinkedIn.

Topics: PR

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