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Apple vs FBI: An In-depth

Analysis On How A Crisis

Was Averted

Christina See-Kei Wong (U1530066F)

CS2033: Corporate Communications Management Final Report

Table of Contents:

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Content Page
Overview of the Case 2
Company Overview 3
Specifics about the Case 4
Discussion of Relevant Theme Crisis 6
Discussion of Relevant Theme Media Relations 10
Implications 14
Conclusion 16
Bibliography 17

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1. Overview of the case

On February 16 2016, a judge requested Apple for a one-off request to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation

(FBI) unlock an IPhone belonging to Syed Farook, who was responsible for the deaths of 14 people in the San

Bernardino shooting that happened earlier in December. (Kharpal, 2016). Apple's reluctance to help the FBI

resulted in both parties taking the case to court. However, it was dropped when the FBI found a third-party

hacker to unlock the iPhone (Kharpal, 2016).

Through this case study, it can be seen that Apple manages communication with stakeholders in a desirable and

successful manner which could explain why the issue did not became a crisis for Apple. The report will analyse

Apples corporate communication from two angles: Crisis Management and Media relations. As Apple did

relatively well in these two aspects, based on this case study, scholars and communication practitioners can

draw implications on how to better manage communication with stakeholders during a major event/crisis.

2. Company Overview

Apple Inc. is a multinational technology corporation known for its electronic devices specifically, its iPhone,

iPod, iPad, MacBook, its computer software and as well as its online services, iTunes and App Store. (Apple

Inc., n.d.)

Formerly known as Apple computer, the company was founded on 1st April 1976 by Steve Jobs and Steve

Wozniak. Currently, the company headquarter is in Cupertino, California, with Tim Cook serving as the current

CEO of Apple. (Apple Inc., n.d.)

2.1 Mission statement

The following shows Apples mission statement: Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the

world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with

its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App
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store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad. (Rowland, 2015). Words

like "reinvent" and "defining the future" shows Apple's dedication to R&D in making better products and

commitment in excellence and improvement

2.2 Corporate Reputation

Corporate reputation is defined as the stakeholders assessment of a company based on what the company does

over time (Financial Times, n.d.). Corporate reputation is based on a collective assessment of a companys

performance in areas such as finance, social and environment (Financial Times, n.d.). Based on the companys

performance in these aspects, a company can be associated with a favourable or unfavourable corporate


According to RepTrak, a reputation measurement tool that measures the corporate reputation dimensions of the

top well-known companies globally revealed that apple has a relatively high score in innovation, performance,

and emotional dimension (stakeholders' support for Apple) in comparison to top 10 most reputable companies in

the world (shown below) (Reputation Institute, 2016).

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2.3 Apple commitment to protection of consumers privacy

Apple respects its users privacy and protect the data with strong encryption and guidelines that regulate how

Apple handles all its users data (Apple, 2016).Security and privacy drive the design of their products such as

two-step verification (Apple, 2016). Apple believes in letting its users know what personal information is

collected (Apple, 2016). The company also provide reasons behind why the information is needed and also seek

users permission to access the information.

Approach to privacy protection (Apple, 2016):

3. Specifics about the case

The specifics of the case are presented in a timeline as follows:

3.1 Timeline

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3.2 Previous Crisis of Apple (Antennagate)

One of Apples previous crisis faced was Antennagate - users published viral videos showing that gripping the

iPhones black strip while on the phone would reduce its phone calx reception by 4 or 5 signal bars, a much

larger drop than usual phones. Initially, Apples stance was to tell consumers to simply change their holding

position of the phone (Isaacson, W. ,2012, April), drawing backlash. Subsequently, however, Apple published a

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press release (PR) on the 2 July 2010 addressing the situational problems, as well as a press conference (PC)

(MyNewsDesk, 2015, June 18) on the 16 July 2010.

On the aspect of crisis communications, Apple adopted a combination of high responsibility strategies in order

to counteract its technological glitch. With apologies to the members of the public in the form of PC,

interviews and PR, it managed to garner a positive impression by the public and its consumers. Also, Apple

accommodated the consumers, whereby it adopted the rectification technique, by awarding incentives and

products to make up for its mistakes, in the hope of mitigating the effects of its mistakes. As such, in the event

of a similar future crisis, this would generate the buffer effect, whereby people would be more forgiving

towards Apple due to its successful handling of cases in the past, and this would enable Apple to overcome the

crisis more efficiently. In addition, this would further strengthen Apples reputation to its stakeholders.

The first customized press release showed Apples shock and surprise, and explained the solution after

investigation - the introduction of a software update that would fix the software glitch causing the apparent

reception problem(A., 2012, July 2). This addressed the newsworthy angle of consequence, which focuses on

how affected organizations respond to new announcements/occurrences (Upchurch, W. , n.d.), and attracted

plenty of reporters attention to help convey Apples stance and reassure its customers about its product quality.

The PC 2 weeks later also reflected Apples follow-up and value of the issue enough to hold a press conference

to communicate important news. Led by Steve Jobs, a recognised responsible leader who focuses on producing

products of ability and quality(Isaacson, Harvard Business Review, 2012), also helped associate Apple with

such qualities, establishing Apples resolve in improving the iPhone 4. The riskier interactive feature of press

conference also demonstrated Apples confidence in tackling the problem and willingness to address impromptu

questions by journalists. Furthermore, such interaction would increase news coverage as reporters want to get

the most newsworthy information immediately. This then helps the first level of framing by increasing

salience of the matter and thus Apples corporate identity - confident and quality-assured in consumers minds.

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However, when Steve Jobs first released the statement to not hold the iPhone that way, citizen journalists and

online communities who insert their own opinions into articles took on a negative view to the issue, causing

viral widespread of the controversy. Based on the Social Impact Theory, opinions are influenced by the strength

of social pressure, immediacy of impact, and number of people Bibb, L. (1981). Thus, Apple failed to consider

the sensitivity of online media relations with its initial stance, reflecting how inappropriate media relations can

cause detriment instead. Overall, Apple has proved with past crisis that media relations is a key tool in its drive

to establish its corporate image as a customer-oriented company, its success dependent on the type of

information they feed to the media.

4. Discussion of Relevant Theme

4.1 Crisis Communication

Crisis communication refers to efforts undertaken by a company to communicate with stakeholders during a

crisis. A crisis is an issue or event that pose a significant threat to business operations or could negatively affect

the reputation of an organisation if not handled properly (Barton, 2000). Good crisis management could mitigate

the impact of the crisis, thereby allowing companies to protect, limit the damage to its reputation and regain

control over the situation.

The crisis that Apple faced was centered around (1) upholding user privacy and (2) its relationship with the

American government. User privacy will be compromised if Apple cooperates with the FBI in creating a

backdoor to the iPhone, which could potentially trigger a backlash from its consumers worldwide, with 101

millions of them in the United States alone (Smith, 2016). On the other hand, Apples decision to reject FBIs

request could lead to deteriorating relations with the Government and lead Apple to be labelled as an enemy of

National Security (Yadron, Ackerman, & Thielman, 2016). As such, Apples decision can lead to serious

ramifications on its reputation and product sales. With reference to the timeline in the previous section, Apple

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managed to shaped the crisis as a Faux Pas and subsequently, assumed low responsibility for the crisis. How

Apple managed to achieved so will be discussed in the following sections.

In Apples crisis management, it managed to effectively regain control over the situation by garnering public

support and more importantly, build a solid legal stance against the FBI over its decision to not unlock the

iPhone. Apple focused on the statutory gap of the All Writs Act, which was invoked by FBI to request Apples

assistance, arguing that the Act does not grant the judicial branch arbitrary authority in exercising decisions

(Zetter & Barrett, 2016). Apples capability in framing the issue changes its disadvantageous position of

hampering national security to an advantageous position of upholding liberty of American citizens in the digital


4.2 Perceived Successful Crisis Communication Strategies Employed and Suggestion

4.2.1 Sensitive First Crisis Response

First crisis response consists of care response and public safety response. Care response involves

assisting people to deal with the crisis psychologically. In terms of care response, Apple had to display

sensitivity towards those who were affected by the San Bernardinos shooting by being careful not to let

the public label it as an unsympathetic company. The release of the open letter and its supportive stance

towards the FBI highlighted its empathy towards incident (Grossman, 2016).

4.2.2 Calibrated Second Crisis Response through Strategic Utilization of SCCT

As part of its second crisis response, Apple had to first determine its perceived organizations

responsibility to build an appropriate crisis communication agenda. The Situational Crisis

Communication Theory (SCCT) states that crisis response has to match the crisis situation. Therefore,

how an organisation respond to a crisis depends on factors such as the level of crisis responsibility

attributed by the public to the organisation and the reputational threat that is posed by the crisis

(Coombs, 2007).

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Applying the SCCT, minimal responsibility was attributed to apple. this was because this was the worst

terrorist attacks since 9/11, sparking intense public emotions who would pinpoint the responsibility to

ISIS and the 2 perpetrators instead rather than Apple. Furthermore, Aple s bold decision to challenge the

FBI was that it expected strong public support, such as calling for public opinion to play a role in the

decision of creating the backdoor (Russon, 2016).

4.2.3 Adoption of Low Crisis Communication Plans

Additionally, situational factors such as publics perception, validity of legal standpoint and strong

corporate reputation helped Apple decide on the level of crisis responsibility it had to assume as

presented in the following matrix:

While the FBI as an external party was well-meaning but potentially infringing on the privacy of consumers,

Apple was able to shape the legal battle effectively as a Faux pas- an unintentional action transformed into crisis

by an external actor. As such, Apple was able to exercise the low responsibility strategy of victimization,

where it tried to positioned itself as a responsible company which hold consumers welfare in high regards that

founded itself involuntarily in a difficult situation. Evidence of Apples strategy of victimization can be found

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in its open letter (Apple, 2016) to its customers. Through the letter, Tim Cook tried to rationalize Apples stance

and portrayed Apple as a responsible company. This is an effective avenue to gain support from the American

public. Moreover, it even included a FAQ (Apple, 2016) section to answer consumers queries, highlighting its

sincerity and firm stance. Apple was also able to garner support from other notable technology companies like

Google (Williams, 2016). With majority of American citizens, consumers, and corporations on its side,

bolstered by its strong reputation, Apple was able to design an effective crisis communication plan that allowed

it to take low responsibility while still being an accountable corporation in the eyes of consumers.

4.3 Suggestion to Improve Apples Crisis Communication

Apple could have employed various methods in order to further minimise the potential damage to its reputation

through employing various communication methods in order to advocate its stance, and update people more

frequently on the issue. With social media and technology occupying an important role in the global network

today, Apple could have utilized these avenues in order to reach out to the public on a more frequent basis, in

order to maintain a highly transparent stance which would have led to stakeholders having greater trust in it.

Furthermore, Apple could have also tapped on their previous positive experiences with similar events that

required them to forgo their privacy and data protection bond with consumers, in order to portray them in a

more positive light. A good track record and positive testimonials from previous encounters, this would be

likely to generate the buffer effect for Apple, in which their strong and concise handling of previous cases

would make it easier for people to forgive and understand them, and this would repair the stakeholder-

company relationship more easily and quickly.

5. Media Relation

Media relations refers to a companys management of communication and relationships with the media, who

contribute to and control messages that appear in print, broadcast and online news media to stakeholders. These

stakeholders consist of external stakeholders - customers and internal stakeholders - employees and investors. It

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is important for companies to have good media relations as it can lead to positive outcomes such as positive

news coverage and greater awareness. Through analysis, we deduced that Apple has good media relations

because the media were covering Apple frequently and most articles framed Apple in a positive light.

5.1 First Level of Agenda Setting

In this case, Apple has achieved high salience and attention in consumers minds via the first level of agenda

setting. The first level of agenda setting states that the media can influence what people think about. Based on

this theory, the greater the amount of news coverage on the firm, the greater the public awareness of it. In this

case, Apple was frequently covered over a period of eight months by four of the largest news agencies in the

world - United Press International, Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse (The Internationalist,

1981) in front page news, the issue has cast Apple under the spotlight in terms of data protection and privacy.

Besides coverage from the four news agencies, other agencies covered the issue as well.

The following are examples of news headlines which was ran during the period when the issue first surfaced.

The headlines led to an increase in public awareness of the issue that Apple was involved in.

Apple lawyer, FBI director face off in Congress on iPhone encryption (Harte & Edwards, 2016)
Cracked Apple iPhone By F.B.I. Puts Spotlight On Apple Security (Vanian, 2016)
The battle of FBI with Apple puts privacy in the limelight (Nkusi, 2016)

5.2 Second Level of Agenda Setting - Framing

Framing involves branding a topic; placing a message within a field of meaning so as to promote a specific

interpretation to shape the inferences individuals make about the message (Hallahan, 1999). Framing has

positioned Apple as a company that prioritises and protects the wellbeing of their consumers first despite

governmental pressures and is led by a stable and firm leader, Tim Cook. Altogether, this contributes to a

favourable corporate image as well.

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To add, it was observed that most news agencies portrayed Apple positively in their news reports. Based on

analysis, we infer that Apple has relatively good media relations as news agencies framed Apple as a victim and

the general public were supportive of its actions. This can be seen from the way the article was written and from

the headline published. The following are examples of headlines that supports our inference.

DOJ again trying to force Apple's help to break terror suspect's iPhone, says FBI doesn't want 'backdoor'

(Ware, 2016)
FBI hacks into terrorists iPhone without Apple (Johnson, Swartz, & Cava, 2016)
Solid support for Apple in iPhone encryption fight (Finkle, 2016)

As seen, words such as trying to force, hacks, solid support were used in the article headlines. These

words shape perspectives and promote a specific interpretation for Apple. The first and second headline framed

Apple as a victim whereas the third headline framed the action undertaken by Apple as being supported by


5.3 Perceived Successful Media Relations Strategies Employed by Apple

5.3.1 Open Letter

Apples Tim Cook released an open letter - A Message to Our Customers on the Apple Website which

emphasized on the need for encryption, gave a background of The San Bernardino Case and addressed

that FBIs intention is threatening data security. The website also published some frequently asked

questions to address consumers concerns. From what we analysed, even though Apple positioned the

letter to its customers, in fact it also served as a press release for journalists worldwide. It clearly showed

Apples stand of protecting data security, even to the extent of challenging the FBIs demands. The core

value of respecting democracy and liberty that Apple has was being picked up by newspaper journalists

and broadcast journalists and was framed positively. This media relation approach that Apple took was

seen to be effective as activist such as The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) learnt about this

through media and they rallied to support Apples stand.

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5.3.2 Interviews with Main stream Channels

Tim Cooks 29-minute interview with David Muir from ABC news covered various questions

involving the reasons for not acceding to the FBIs request (Francis. E, 2016) is another good media

relation approach.

The interview showed Tim Cooks composure and ability to respond quickly and effectively to the

reporters questions, despite pressures from being shown live on national television. It also portrayed his

sensitivity in the matter by answering the questions with detailed answers. The interview marked a rare

television interview appearance by Tim Cook, his last most notable appearance being the NBC wide-

range interview in 2012 (NBCN, 2012), reflecting the severity of the matter such that Apple requires its

leader to step out and handle the issue decisively. Taking place in Tim Cooks office with Tim Cook in a

suit, the interview also conveys to the audience Apples professionalism and implicitly associates the

company and its leader - Tim Cook, with responsibility and well-organisation.

Another interview on this case was done by Steve Wozniak, a cofounder of Apple, with Conan

OBrien on TBS Conan show. Wozniak sided Apple, he started by saying that he advocates human

rights and showed empathy to users who wouldnt want their personal information to be hacked. The

session ended with Conan OBrien, the talk show host stating that he is convinced by Wozniak and he is

with him, supporting Apples stand in this case. Taking into account that Conan has an audience of

299,000 viewers in the demographic of persons 18 to 49 (Based on the 2015 data), it was a smart media

relation move of Apple by having an important stakeholder to clarify the issue on television and to get

media personality to show support for the corporation.

5.3.3 Press conference

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The press conference held in March meant to introduce the latest product updates in Apple allowed

Apple to use the opportunity for interaction with the media to limit negative media coverage (Vanity

Fair, 2016). Although tailored beforehand, the message addressed the ongoing conflict with the FBI first,

reflecting the importance placed on this issue by Apple and its concern for its consumers. It started by

explaining the importance of the iPhone to Apples more than 1 billion consumers first, to allow the

audience to understand how extensive this issue affected its consumers. Subsequently, the message was

conveyed using imperatives like we will not shrink from our responsibility, which portrays their firm

stand and authority against the issue. The 5-minute message in the 1-hour long interview was short and

effective due to its language and tone, thus further positioning Apples aggressive stance to protecting its


6. Implications

Based on Apples case analysis, the following are some lessons scholars and communication practitioners can

learn and apply in the event of a crisis or issue.

6.1 Firm stance

Throughout the crisis, Apple took a firm and unwavering stance on protecting the digital privacy rights of its

consumers. This is despite oppositional reactions from many key government personnel, such as President

Obama (Elmer-DeWitt, 2016). This firm and consistent stance was critical in helping Apple to draw support its

own stakeholders and even from other big technology companies such as Google and Twitter (CNET, 2016),

which lent their heavy weight to reinforce Apples stance.

6.2 Transparent and concise explanation

In contrast to negotiating with the FBI in the background, Apple release of the open letter (Apple, 2016) and

FAQ section about its decision on its website speaks volume about its willingness to maintain transparency for

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the whole world to witness. This transparency helped to build up a good public perception of Apple as a reliable

and trustable company and not one that is at fault. Furthermore, the explanation offered in the letter and FAQ

was concise and quick to the point, showing its sincerity in reaching out to consumers and other stakeholders

that may be concerned.

6.3 Focused on the big picture

Apple also kept its sights far and focused on the long-term strategic implications of its decision to not create a

backdoor. It argued on the principle that if it allowed an exception this time around, it may create a dangerous

precedent for the US government to embark on similar projects against other technology companies in the

future and grant unfettered power to the government over technology companies. Ultimately, it could harm

consumers privacy and safety which was what Apples consumers were looking for in the iPhone itself the

assurance that their data would be kept secured through the strong reliability of the iPhone operating system.

Hence, Apples stance allowed it to account for the long-term by keeping its promise of a secure iOS for its


6.4 Solidarity of employees through good internal communication

Amidst the legal battle, Tim Cook released a special internal memo to all Apple employees (Epstein, 2016) to

reaffirm Apples stance in the crisis. Through this memo, it allowed the companys employees to understand the

rationale behind Apples stance thoroughly. Convincing its employees through clear reasons is definitely a more

effective way to accrue employees support as compared to just issuing a directive asking for everyones

cooperation in the issue. Therefore, Tim Cook was able to build solidarity within the company by offering

transparent reasons.

6.5 Strategies in Handling Media Interviews

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Being interviewed on national TV network about a high-stake issue such as the FBI case can be daunting.

Therefore, Apples communication practitioners employed a few strategies to prepare Tim Cook, the CEO in

handling this particular interview. The setting of the 29 minutes interview was at Cooks personal office, the

heart of Apples headquarter. It was a good public relation strategy to win the hearts of millions by getting up-

close and personal with the CEO. Cook was trained to give forceful responses on his firm stand to tackle

various polarized interview questions. (Fiegerman, 2016) Tim Cook was able to provide detailed answers to

assure the public about Apples stand on the issue.

6.6 Keep Communications Simple

The simpler a piece of communication is written, the more understandable it is and the more people (including

media personnel) will be willingly to read it. Apples press releases are written in simple understandable terms

that everyone with a basic foundation of English could understand (Craig, 2016). The press releases are also

concisely written with clear explanation. The press releases issued for this case were no different from the usual.

PR practitioners should learn from Apple and keep it simple. To check if it is easily understood by others, PR

practitioners should run press releases through readability tests/tools first before publishing it. One such

readability test is readability score (, which is free to use.

6.7 Make Reporting Easier

By observation, reporters are using information provided by Apple because most articles published by the media

during the period were taken from Apples website. Apple facilitates the media's job by hosting a dedicated

media section on its website, a media enquiries hotline and providing media contacts of each article released to

fuel their enquiries. This increases the likelihood of reporters covering Apples news stories more accurately and

thus could be the reason why the media were reporting facts about Apple reaction accurately and consistently.

7. Conclusion

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This case study on Apple has shed light on good practices that corporations in similar circumstances can

emulate and learn from, including clear communication with the media to facilitate more accurate reporting,

maintaining a firm stance throughout, and being transparent above all. Perhaps the most important take-away is

that throughout the crisis, Apple had always keep it eyes on the long-term strategic implications and avoid

short-sighted measures. Finally, we hope this will serve as a guide for future PR practitioners in similar



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