Wall Street Journal Crisis of the Week: Apple Bets Reputation in Govt iPhone Fight

Schwartz Media Strategies CEO Tadd Schwartz shares with the Wall Street Journal his crisis communication plan for Apple’s privacy fight with the FBI.  


By Ben DiPietro

Apple Inc.’s fight with the Federal Bureau of Investigation about whether it should be forced to help retrieve information from an iPhone used by one of the alleged terrorists in the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings is this week’s crisis. Apple is fighting a judge’s order to assist the government, telling customers in a letter from Chief Executive Tim Cook that acquiescing to the order “threatens the security of our customers” and carries implications far beyond those raised in this specific case. He also made the company’s case in a video and in an interview with ABC.

The agency says Apple is making false arguments to protect its marketing strategy. FBI Director James Comey said in a letter the issue is a narrow matter of law that involves getting help in trying to guess the phone’s passcode “without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly.” Mr. Comey said this is a very complicated issue. The stakes are high for both sides.

According to prosecutors in a case last year in New York, Apple has unlocked phones for authorities on 70 occasions—though some say that is not true, showing the case had devolved into a technical fight.

The crisis experts were asked to evaluate how well each side is making its argument, where they are falling short and where they are excelling.

Tadd Schwartz, president and CEO, Schwartz Media Strategies: “Steve Jobs declared, ‘It’s better to be a pirate than join the Navy.’ Rebelliousness has suited Apple well, but it may have gone too far in refusing to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone.

“The FBI is wisely framing this debate against the backdrop of preventing future attacks. The bureau has been aggressive in making its case and transparent in explaining what it’s asking of Apple. Tim Cook has dismissed the FBI’s request as a Pandora’s box that would put customers at risk, which is to say protecting iPhone users is more important than protecting everyone else.

“Both sides could benefit from a dose of Apple’s ‘think different’ mantra, using this impasse as a platform for uniting the tech sector and the government. [This could be done by] creating a consumer ‘bill of rights’ spelling out privacy provisions and outlining when and how companies and governments will cooperate; forming a Cabinet-level post that better connects Washington with Silicon Valley; and leading a public awareness campaign that sends a message of collaboration that [could] instill consumer confidence.

“Brands thrive on flexibility and an ability to win public sentiment. By finding common ground with the government, Cook can bolster Apple’s brand in the eyes of the public.”

Continue Reading