Crisis expert gives Apple a 'C' for iPhone 4 response

News conference gets an A- or B+, but slow reaction to three-week event less impressive

Apple's news conference last week on the iPhone 4 antenna and reception fiasco gets an A- grade, but its overall response rates just a C, according to a crisis communications expert.

"For the test, I'd give Apple a B+ or A-, but for the entire semester, they get just a C," said Patrick Kerley, senior digital strategist with Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that specializes in situations where companies are backed against a wall.

Although Kerley gave Apple CEO Steve Jobs high marks for the way he handled last Friday's press conference, during which Jobs defended the iPhone 4's antenna design and announced all buyers will receive a free case to improve reception, he knocked the company's slow response to the three-week incident.

"Apple got caught flat-footed," said Kerley. "By waiting as long as they did, they created a vacuum of news, and others stepped in, like Consumer Reports, to fill that vacuum."

Kerley was referring to the consumer testing and rating magazine that spurred the debate about the iPhone 4's antenna design on July 12 when it said it could not recommend the new smartphone -- something it's done with every previous model produced by Apple -- because it dropped calls and lost signals when users touch the external antenna.

Although complaints from consumers about the iPhone 4 dropping calls surfaced within hours of the smartphone's June 24 launch, media attention reached a crescendo last week after Consumer Reports first said it would not recommend the phone, then added that a case seemed to solve the problems.

Kerley applauded the way Jobs kicked off last week's press conference. "That was a good way for him to walk into the conversation," said Kerley of Jobs' defense of the iPhone 4. At the beginning of his 40 minutes on stage, Jobs showed how BlackBerry, HTC and Samsung phones also lose signal strength when held. "All smartphones have weak spots, this is not unique to the iPhone 4," Jobs argued.

"That's a pretty classic way to try to talk about a situation," said Kerley. "The idea is to soften the focus on Apple."

Kerley said other companies have used the same tactic, notably Johnson & Johnson nearly 30 years ago when it reacted to murders committed using cyanide-contaminated Tylenol. "They pointed out very clearly that everyone was using the same [bottle] technology," said Kerley of the 1982 incident. "But they were the ones who came out and said, 'We are going to be the best.'"

Apple should have done more earlier, though. "This wasn't a model for other companies to follow," Kerley said. "Not a lot of other companies can wait weeks to respond."

While Apple quickly acknowledged that holding the iPhone 4 could diminish the signal, its initial advice -- "avoid gripping it in the lower left corner" or "use one of the many available cases" -- struck some customers as insulting. A week later, Apple muddied the water by admitting that the iPhone 4's signal strength formula was flawed, a clear misstep, according to Kerley.

"Their message was different from one week to the next," Kerley said.

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