Steve Jobs was right about one thing. He and Apple are not perfect. Jobs was talking about the dropped calls problem with the new iPhone 4. But he also proved he’s not perfect in how to handle the media fallout.
Jobs was wrong to ban live broadcast coverage of his mea culpa news conference. This was big news for iPhone customers, present and future, and all the interested parties on The Street.
Fox Business Network, CNBC, Bloomberg and any of the all-news cable networks hoping to provide live coverage were left with one option: repeat information incrementally as it came to them from their people inside the news conference. In-between reports, fill with conjecture and opinion. Jobs left them no choice but to fill the time helping create impressions about Apple that are counter productive to his goals. Many of them were less than complimentary. (Click on the video below for an example of CNBC’s make-shift coverage.)
But that wasn’t Jobs’ only mistake. After opening his briefing admitting Apple’s not perfect, he took 30 minutes before offering his solutions. First, he launched into all the positives about iPhone 4; the 3 million sold, high praise from the trade press and users, etc.
“He’s in denial guys,” a CNBC reporter declared as this factoid dribbled out in text messages from producers inside the briefing.
CNBC had 7 (later joined by an 8th) reporters and commentators all on camera together to fill the time and fill in the blanks. While they waited for first details, it was revealed Apple knew it had an iPhone 4 problem dropping calls more than three weeks earlier. That prompted one of their panel members to say “this means they waited for a customer to complain.” He suggested Jobs was being disingenuousness; or, he said, they never really properly tested the phone.
Another, “did they rush to market?” A third reporter asked the question on the minds of most watching the coverage, how are they going to fix the problem? It would be awhile before that answer finally came.
As more details came out on what Jobs called “antenna-gate,” one of CNBC’s panel members wondered aloud: “Isn’t this just an Apple backlash; they’ve been ridin’ high, they walk on water, and now we gotta take ‘em down.”
Then the lead anchor reported Jobs was comparing his phone to all the other makes, like Samsung, Motorola, LG, etc., saying they suffer the problem of dropped calls, too.
By making that comparison Jobs single-handedly reduced the Apple’s image as the superior smart phone developer to the level of the competition. Also, why should his customers care about those other smart phones? They own the iPhone 4 and all they care about are the problems they’re having with their phones and what Apple was going to do for them.
One of CNBC’s reporters reacted to the comparisons saying “It makes them whiny.”
And this: “We need bowing and scraping. We want to see him do the Jimmy Swaggert ‘I have sinned against you.’”
Deep into the coverage yet another complained, “We are 22 minutes into this news conference and we don’t know what the fix is…”
“They’re burying the lead,” another chimed in.
And this suggestion that Steve Jobs and Apple may have known before even one iPhone 4 left the factory: “You can’t have a complaint until you’ve shipped the product; that doesn’t mean you didn’t know before you shipped it, it had this weakness.”
Jobs could not necessarily have avoided all this commentary, but he blew the opportunity to set the agenda first by letting the networks feed live coverage and keep the focus on him.
As one of CNBC’s brain trust offered: “That isn’t Apple’s way!” That’s true, and it’s puzzling why Steve Jobs decided to break with tradition.