On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

The Leadership Playlist

A rotten Apple? Leadership follies from antennagate

On June 24th, a public relations nightmare began for Apple when word leaked that there may be issues with the latest version of its immensely popular iPhone 4.  Specifically, users provided evidence of a defective antennae design that causes poor connections and dropped calls when the phone was held in a certain way.

With over 3 million of his company's smartphones sold in the first 22 days on the market, Apple CEO Steve Jobs cut short his Hawaii vacation to address this issue in a hastily scheduled press conference on Friday, July 16th. As "antennagate" gained momentum, Apple handled some things poorly, while they ended up getting it right. It's another story that offers a few leadership lessons from which we can all learn.

1) Communicate, don't fall behind

While few would argue that Apple has been consistently ahead of the curve with their smartphone technology, the folks at Apple fell behind this story early and had trouble catching up. Perhaps they didn't anticipate the coverage, but from the beginning Apple remained quiet as the story gained momentum. The information that was released was largely unsympathetic to end-users. Jobs himself suggested customers "avoid holding it in that way," while internal troubleshooting guidelines suggested that customer service agents should not offer free cases, and instead instruct customers where to (not) hold the phone.

2) A leader's job is to educate

In his press conference, Jobs made it clear that only 22 days had passed from the release of the iPhone 4. He proceeded to educate the audience - largely composed of media - that all smartphones experience signal degradation when held in certain ways. (I tried it with my own smartphone and, true to Jobs' claims, the signal got worse.) Jobs went on to provide data about the number of iPhone 4 users who had called Applecare complaining of signal issues, and then answered questions for over 30 minutes. In doing all of this, he was educating both the public and the media about larger issues surrounding the smartphone industry, and specific topics related to the iPhone 4. Jobs made a compelling case that the iPhone 4's problem was more a perception issue rather than a death knell for the product.

3) Vulnerability isn't always a bad thing

Jobs opened his press conference by stating, "we're not perfect." This went a long way towards mitigating the perception that many hold about Apple - that they're an arrogant company that does not admit fault and has lost touch with consumers. By simply acknowledging the idea that his company has faults, Apple demonstrated a vulnerability that, counter-intuitively, improves outside perception of Apple. Furthermore, when Jobs suggested that his company only "works harder" when faced with mistakes, he refuted the image that some critics embrace that the company was simply working to develop creative excuses rather than fix the problem.

4) Attack problems - they won't just go away

While the folks at Apple were no doubt working hard behind the scenes to address the issue of signal degredation, the primary problem here seemed to be public perception. The perception that developed - and Apple didn't dispute - was that Apple didn't care that there was an issue with their iPhone 4. It took a Consumer Reports conclusion that they would not recommend the iPhone 4, despite its high marks in almost all categories, to finally spur Apple into action. Apple came to the conclusion that their problem, even if it was one of perception, was not going to simply go away. They finally attacked the issue by gathering and sharing data with the public and providing context around the antennae issue.

5) Sometimes an apology goes a long way

Apple reversed course when, during the questioning period of the news conference, CEO Steve Jobs offered an apology, a free case, and a potential refund to those customers who have experienced problems. It's been clearly demonstrated that a case fixes the antennae issue. Jobs offer of a case allowed customers to hop back on board without the anxiety that they are carrying an inferior product. And for the iPhone 4 customers who are not satisfied, the refund offers them a way out, and more importantly increases their chances of trying an Apple product in the future.

Consumer Reports felt that the offer of free cases was a good first step, but still does not recommend the iPhone 4. Others feel that coverage of the iPhone 4 issue was overblown. What did you think about how Apple handled the problem, and what could they have done better?

Have idea for what we should write about next? Be in touch at info@menoconsulting.com or visit us at Meno Consulting.

By Joe Frontiera  |  July 18, 2010; 4:14 PM ET  | Category:  Communication skills , Leadership , Technology Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Five leadership lessons from Lebron James' LeBacle | Next: Facebook's leadership: Dissecting Mark Zuckerberg


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Great post on PR lessons. I took a crack at the situation from the perspective of business model strategy and a CEO's role vis a vis the business model strategy in my business model innovation blog. I see a glaring gap on Jobs' part: In resolving his organization's antenna design debate during the product's development, Jobs advanced one part of Apple's value/brand promise (elegant appearance) at the cost of another part of Apple's brand promise (saves time and frustration). Great leaders force organizations to find solutions that cut through the trade-offs.

Posted by: MKPlantes | July 27, 2010 7:32 PM

hmmm, fanboys are pooling here to praise "Steve" and chastise those guilty of insufficient adulation. Yawn.
The bungled censorship issues, the egging on of police to break into the home of the person who ended up with the lost iPhone prototype, and the 'get lost' initial PR response from Apple, until forced to speak, are lame.
This is a company seeped in a personality cult, that celebrates its early employees who worked 40-hour days and abandoned family responsibilities (as Jobs himself did with the daughter he declined to recognize and support for years.) This is no hero.
The 50-60% profit margin on the phones, built in Chinese sweatshops with indentured workers so panicked about Apple security rules that they kill themselves regularly, gives further pause.
The company is a disgrace to American business and embodies all that is wrong with today's "not my problem" business climate.
The "cool" phones enrich a company with shallow values that holds customers in contempt and feels empowered to censor important content in a comical overreach.
The fact that they have duped misguided teens and nerds into yearning for 'cool' via over-priced products is no cause for celebration.
Jobs is hungry for the very monopolistic practices that he spent decades criticizing Bill Gates for. It is disturbing.

Posted by: FloridaChick | July 22, 2010 4:12 AM

Absolutely agree that Apple mis-handled this. A surprise based on Apple's normally excellent customer service. The most unfortunate thing is that "success" is pretty basic: http://pivotpointsolutions.net/2009/10/14/snatching-victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat/

Posted by: almcfarland | July 21, 2010 3:28 PM

I love my iPhone 4 and have had no issues with it and remain a devoted fan of Apple.

I too thought that Apple should have been the first to tell its own bad news but that aside Steve Jobs deserves kudos for his handling of the press conference. He accomplished three things:

1)Admitted Apple is not perfect, it's a statement everyone and every company can relate to.

2)Rewarded loyal customers i.e. with free bumpers/cases

3)Wrapped up remarks with a positive - White iPhone 4 coming soon.

It was the perfect trifecta.

Posted by: marciecasas | July 21, 2010 12:08 PM

Jobs said they knew about the problem as soon as they shipped. So why all the obfuscation for so long? They lost control of the messaging. If they had owned up to the issue right away, offered free bumpers or refunds on Day One (or two) and pledged to keep improving, they would have quashed the media feeding frenzy in its earliest stages.

Posted by: tomgable | July 21, 2010 10:31 AM

Everyone needs to get over this Iphone problem.. I'm hearing about it more then the suicide bombings. Something doesn't add up right when people make a bigger deal of a minor defect in a phone rather then countless innocent deaths. I got my Iphone here http://bit.ly/9aLwwd and have had no huge issues with it, best phone I've owned in fact. Lets get back to the real world and grow up

Posted by: tjgibbs101 | July 20, 2010 5:46 PM

Perhaps I'm fortunate to be in a very good signal area, but I cannot replicate the "death grip" problem. However, I'll take a free case - thank you very much.

I was very happy with my iPhone 3G. With the iPhone 4, I gain a better camera and voice control - both things I've used (an app for the voice control)on my 3G regularly. The sharp display is a plus.

As for my 3G? It's now my, "iTouch". That AT&T provides a new sim card with the iPhone 4, I'm able to use the WiFi on my 3G, along with many of the apps.

All things considered, I'm ecstatic.

It would take a, "walk-on-water" smartphone release from a competing company to make me switch to another mobile phone.

Posted by: kban495 | July 20, 2010 4:35 PM

You neglected Apple's biggest mistake of all in this drama: signing a five year exclusive contract with AT&T for voice and data.

Posted by: dldbug | July 20, 2010 3:01 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company