Apple’s Sweatshops: Damage-control Strategies in PR

Apple’s Sweatshops: Damage-control Strategies in PR

By Carole Bersillon, Intern

The day after Apple announced its highest revenue and earnings ever, The New York Times released an extensive and aggressive article about Apple’s manufacturing system in China, revealing among others safety problems, under-age workers, unfair wage policies and record falsification. The article quotes reports and documents employees and anonymous executives’ testimonies, groups and organizations’ comments to build its credibility and Apple is copiously quoted under negative connotations. Moreover, the authors use storytelling along the article, appealing to pathos and in an attempt of gaining readers’ approval: Lai Xiaodong was a 22-year old worker who died after the explosion of an Apple factory due to material dust.

“If you see the same pattern of problems, year after year, that means the company’s ignoring the issue rather than solving it,” said one former Apple executive with firsthand knowledge of the supplier responsibility group.

Despite the reminders that it is not the only company to carry the fault and measures like the implementation of code of conducts, audits in its factories and suppliers policies, the brand suffers negative connotations that effect its image and reputation and the products become tangible evidence of flouted human-rights.  Apple’s sweatshops coverage quickly spread online and through social media, creating bad publicity in terms of brand image and reputation management.

How will that article impact Apple? How will Apple react? Will Apple react? And how can PR implement damage-control strategies against attacks in an international newspaper?

Public attacks against companies in the media is not a new tactic, but when they target one of the most popular, successful and highest valued companies in the world, they is a great opportunity to evaluate the role of PR and communication.

How will that article impact Apple?

Shorty after it was published; the article generated a huge amount of comments. Among the 867 comments on the NYT website, I extracted 50 and analyzed people’s reactions. Three major tendencies were observed:

– Negative comments about Apple and its products and practices, surprise and anger of the readers (32% of the comments were negative about Apple and only 12% strictly focused on Apple’s manufacturing practices. 18% encouraged readers to take action and boycott Apple’s products.)

“I have never owned an apple product, was about to join, but now certainly never will.”

– Defense of the brand and turn of the controversial matter to business regulations, globalization and outsourcing issues or China policies (16% of the comments were positive about the brand and more than 70% focused on working conditions or business topics and not on Apple.)

This is the cost of the two overriding values of the brave new global economy: greed and conspicuous consumption.”

– Criticism of the article and the NYT (28% of the comments were negative about the article and suspected a Times attempt to unhinge the brand with traffic generator headlines.)

“Reading the article a second time, I am even more convinced this is an attempt by the Times to damage Apple. Apple should aggressively attack back against the Times.”

We can’t predict the future but it seems Apple will not suffer much from that article thanks to its large community of fans, its charismatic leader and its products. Also, Apple is generally perceived as an environmentally friendly brand, close to people and with a relative transparent communication. The article itself acknowledges the limited impact it could have: “But ultimately, say former Apple executives, there are few real outside pressures for change. Apple is one of the most admired brands. In a national survey conducted by The New York Times in November, 56 percent of respondents said they couldn’t think of anything negative about Apple. Fourteen percent said the worst thing about the company was that its products were too expensive. Just 2 percent mentioned overseas labor practices.”

How will Apple react? Will Apple react?

Apple refused to comment the summaries sent by the NYT before publication. It is likely the company will not make any comment, to avoid generating negative noise. However, several strategies could be adopted:

– Apple keeps silent and the story will be soon forgotten,

– Apple attacks the NYT and denounces a smear campaign,

– Apple tries to prove its transparency and brings evidence of its good practices,

– Apple blames its suppliers and takes new measures to improve the situation.

In any case, PR and communication will play a decisive role because they are the voice of the company and the article created an expectation among readers, being fans or not: what will Apple reply?

More than issue management, the PR team now has to answer the question of expectations management. To be continued…

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