Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you have a good idea of the details behind the Apple iPhone 4 debate. Since the product was released in mid-June, users and bloggers have reported more dropped calls. If you’re not caught up with “death grip” problem and other complaints, you can read about them here.

However, I’m not going to focus on the issues you can have if you squeeze your iPhone 4 like one of those squeezable stress balls. No, let’s look at Apple’s (aka Steve Jobs) communications strategy during this debacle. Engadget posted a great chronological list of Apple’s response to the initial complains. There are some great lessons to PR and crisis communication teams hidden within Apple and Jobs’s tactics.

Lesson 1: Denial is Rarely An Option

Unless you are 150% certain that the problem with your product/service due to something out of your control and your client is not guilty, do not outright deny the problem.  Chances are, especially with technology products, the company needs to do some investigation into claims made against the device before ever issuing a statement – even as brief as a short e-mail.  That kind of quick quip will 99.9% of the time result in backlash.

Denial also needs to be quelched far before the project launch. Bloomberg reported that Steve Jobs was told about the potential antennae problem in the early stages of product development.  Honestly, I believe that any phone will drop calls – not all phones are incredibly reliable, especially when paired with AT&T service. However, these types of reports can cause further damage if you’ve kept quiet about product problems in the past. It simply looks like you’re hiding something.

Lesson 2: Listen, Listen, and Listen Some More – Oh, and Share What You Learned

ALWAYS have your ear to the ground and report consumer issues to the right people to influence appropriate actions. I think Apple is keenly aware of those consumers, bloggers and trade publications who can seal their fate (i.e. Engaget, Gizmodo, Wired and Consumer Reports). They have a long-standing history of transparency with the media about their products, but I feel Apple underestimated their reactionary stance until it was too late.

Lesson 3: Add Some Humor

Thank you, Steve Jobs, for coining the phrase “antennaegate.” You have to admit, he does give a great presentation and knows what to say to lighten the room. I think his response to the Gizmodo leak during the WWDC 2010 Keynote was spot-on.

Lesson 4: The Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth

Even though denial was his first response, Jobs and Apple did a great job of giving all of the facts in bite-sized pieces so that media and consumers could spread the word. After reading the more popular reviews, I can quote the numbers too. In the clip provided by CNN’s Doug Gross, Jobs even used the word “transparent.” Thank you very much, Steve.   (You can also watch the official Apple video from today’s press conference here).

Lesson 5: Offer a Fix that Consumers Can Get Behind

Sure, there will still be some skepticism at first. If you can determine the issue, offer a fix and tell your consumers what else you will do to research and correct the problem, you’re one step ahead.  I think the free cases or full refund option allows iPhone 4 users to take control of what they want and send a message to Apple at the same time.

In the end, it baffled me  (and I think Apple as well) about the instant outcry that developed over this problem.  I mean, Sen. Schumer got involved, which I believe was unnecessary since Apple began communicating on the issue with it’s open letter almost two weeks prior. (Plus, it is a PHONE! Not a national crisis. I’m just as addicted to my iPhone, but we have bigger problems in this world – like the financial crisis).

The problem for Apple: too little, too late – especially once the Consumer Reports piece entered the picture. Bonus points for Jobs and the technology giant: offering a fix, investigating issues, factual tidbits and a few fun laughs out of it.

I give Apple a 2 out of 4 bars for their crisis communication response, but I still will happily endorse the brand. What about you?


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