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How Apple does damage control


Typically, whenever something goes wrong with a company or its products and services, the company will try to head off a media free-for-all by releasing a brief statement that usually does only two things: it acknowledges that a problem exists and promises more information at a later date. But as Jason Snell at Macworld notes, Apple doesn't work that way. He notes that Apple's response to the so-called "locationgate" issue was almost identical to its reaction to "antennagate" last year.

Instead of doing what everyone expected them to do, which was acknowledge the location tracking issue and promise a fix, Apple let the media have a field day for a week before releasing its official statement. Meanwhile, as Apple silently investigated reports of users' locations being stored on iOS devices and relatively easily accessed from their Macs after a backup, the media spent a week bellowing out various hysterical pronouncements with half-baked arguments supporting sensationalistic headlines, like the New Zealand Herald's Warning: iPhones can spy on you. At the same time, lawsuits ensued, Senators piled on, and even South Park got in on the action.

Apple eventually relayed its findings in a calm and collected manner, and as a result, much of the media furor has died down. The question is, why does Apple operate this way during media crises? It definitely takes a big risk by doing so; Sony recently reacted in much the same manner during the recent PlayStation Network hacking debacle, but the company's echoing silence to a week's worth of media inquiries and frenzied demands for answers from frustrated users has been almost universally damned as the worst possible reaction.

The way Apple has weathered its past two "-gate" controversies may also be a barometer for how seriously the company takes such media handwringing -- in other words, the more wildly out of proportion the media's claims about the situation and what Apple's response "must" be, the more likely Apple is to ignore the white noise, shut itself away in the lab, and only emerge when it has the unvarnished truth at its disposal. In the first instance, iPhone 4s were losing signal when held in a certain manner, but functioning fine otherwise. The media characterized this as a fundamental flaw so enormous in scale that it would require a massive recall of the iPhone 4 and cost Apple tens of millions of dollars, but Apple responded by pointing out how all phones lose signal through attenuation, offered free cases to everyone with an iPhone 4 (and later on to anyone who felt substantially impacted by signal loss), and went on to sell tens of millions more iPhones.

The recent controversy over user location data being stored on iPhones was, if you believed the more sensationalistic media outlets, a secret Apple program designed to track users for nefarious (possibly profiteering) purposes. If you were packing an iPhone or an iPad around, you weren't safe from Big Brother Steve Jobs' prying eyes; worse yet, you weren't safe in your own home either, as anyone with physical access to your Mac could download a program that would view your location data and allow them to track your every move. Philandering spouses beware! The reality turned out to be far more mundane; Apple explained that this tracking data is only used to compile a crowdsourced location database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell phone towers to assist in location services, not relay Joe the Plumber's location to the NSA at all times. Apple has promised a software fix to prevent this data from being stored permanently, and once again, it will go on to sell tens of millions of iPhones.

It will be interesting to see how Apple reacts to its next media crisis -- and there definitely will be one, and the over-under on the media's response to it isn't even worth going into. But if you want a preview of how Apple will react, watch how the media reacts first. If lawsuits spring up overnight, Congressional inquiries get scheduled immediately, and tech pundits start calling for Steve Jobs to resign and give everyone in America a free pony and a Coca-Cola (the good kind, made with real sugar instead of that high-fructose corn syrup sludge), I'd say it's a safe bet that Apple's not going to take the bait and respond right away.

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