Crisis comm expert applauds Apple's Cook for stepping up, talking about photo scandal

Old arrogance won't cut it in today's more competitive smartphone market

Cloud computing security lock.

Apple's chief executive yesterday took the unusual step of publicly commenting on the theft of hundreds of intimate photographs from celebrities' iPhones.

An expert in crisis communication applauded Cook for speaking up. "This was clearly a good idea," said Gene Grabowski, senior strategist at Levick, a Washington, D.C. firm that advises companies on public relations and messaging strategies. "What we're seeing here is the realization on the part of Cook that in order to maintain their position, they're going to have to be more transparent."

In a Thursday interview with the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, said that his company was not to blame for the photo scandal. He denied that Apple's iCloud was hacked systematically and when attackers stole passwords by correctly answering reset questions, or after victims fell for a phishing scam and gave up their credentials.

Apple, said Cook, will soon begin sending both email and iOS notification alerts when someone tries to change a password or restores a backup from iCloud to a new device, or when a new device accesses an account. Currently, only email alerts are issued, and not before or after a restoration of an iPhone backup.

Apple CEO Tim Cook Thinkstock

Apple CEO Tim Cook.

While Cook clearly put the onus on users, he acknowledged that Apple had to do more to make customers understand how account hacks can happen, to convince them to use stronger passwords, and to use the two-factor authentication already in place.

"When I step back from this terrible scenario that happened and say what more could we have done, I think about the awareness piece," Cook told the newspaper. "I think we have a responsibility to ratchet that up."

The nude celebrity photos made news starting last weekend, and coverage has yet to die down. Most blog posts and media reports used "iCloud" in their headlines, painting Apple with a tarred brush.

Experts said that the drumbeat of negative stories damaged Apple's reputation, specifically that of its iCloud sync and storage service, but that the harm was temporary. But several pointed out that it was especially embarrassing for Apple as it prepares for a major product introduction next week, where it's expected to trumpet new iPhones and a new "iWatch" wearable line of devices, and demonstrate its home automation and health care-related initiatives.

In a Computerworld news story of Wednesday, Grabowski said Apple needed to break with its past practice of staying silent or just issuing short statements.

Today, Grabowski praised Cook for listening, not to his advice or that of others who made the same suggestions, but to advisors, probably a combination of both in-house personnel and hired guns, who likely made the same arguments. "He's heeding the advice," said Grabowski.

And that's a good thing.

"Apple is in a completely different environment than when Jobs was alive," said Grabowski, referring to what seemed to him an adaptation to changing times. "It's far more competitive now. Apple remains beloved, but the arrogance that Apple was able to display under Jobs is not a workable strategy any more."

Apple has long been known for its secrecy, which at times reaches levels of paranoia. That holds in spades on security issues: The company rarely comments about security problems, never before they're patched, and the security bulletins it issues following an update are as thin as the gruel in a poorhouse.

Although that's not changed, Cook has been willing to go public at times. He apologized for the Apple Maps mess of 2012 and then last year to Chinese customers after authorities there put pressure on the company to change its warranty policies.

"Apple has to be more transparent, more humble," said Grabowski. "It must be mindful that for it to grow, it has to grow beyond the camp of Apple devotees. And they have to fight for that growth."

The selection of the Wall Street Journal by Apple for Cook's comments made sense: After stories exploded on the Web and television, and in print on Monday, Apple's stock took a hit. Since Monday's opening bell, Apple shares have dropped 4.3% as of 2:30 p.m. ET on Friday.

Some analysts earlier this week questioned whether Apple would step forward and provide more information about the photo scandal, arguing that to do so would only keep the story in the news. Typically, Apple keeps its collective mouth shut.

"There are risks inherent in any strategy," said Grabowski. "By talking, they took the risk that they would extend the story, but obviously weighed the risks of remaining silent, which would have only been a sign of arrogance and signal that they didn't get it. They chose the path with the risks they were willing to take."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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