Apple gets half of America to take its side — and it’s not done

AppleApple has already convinced half of America that it has a case to defy the FBI. Now Tim Cook has extended the company’s clear, jargon-free communication to its own employees, and to the public with an Answers page.

According to a survey of over 1,000 people from the Pew Research Center, 51% of the respondents think Apple should unlock the terrorist’s iPhone for the FBI. Does this mean Apple has lost the PR battle? No! It means that Tim Cook and Apple’s communication already have 38% of America on their side after just one week, with another 11% who aren’t sure. Getting half of America not to support the FBI is incredible — I can’t think of another company that could take this position and get this far, this fast.

My post on Tim Cook’s letter to customers was my third-most popular post ever. But people’s perceptions don’t all change in an instant. Apple has now extended its PR push in two directions: with a letter to employees and an Answers page.

Cook’s letter to employees bolsters his case

Yesterday, Buzzfeed published Tim Cook’s letter to employees. Cook continues with his clear, jargon-free, persuasive, and effective communications style, describing the company’s position on this complex issue in only 536 words. Excerpts:

Last week we asked our customers and people across the United States to join a public dialogue about important issues facing our country. . . . This case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation, so when we received the government’s order we knew we had to speak out. At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties. [Rather than start with a technical discussion or outright defiance, Cook positions this as a “public dialogue about important issues.” Apple wants its employees to think of this, not as a legal matter, but as a political discussion.]

Some advocates of the government’s order want us to roll back data protections to iOS 7, which we released in September 2013. Starting with iOS 8, we began encrypting data in a way that not even the iPhone itself can read without the user’s passcode, so if it is lost or stolen, our personal data, conversations, financial and health information are far more secure. We all know that turning back the clock on that progress would be a terrible idea. [Apple famously does not allow employees — except a very few at the top — to speak publicly. But those employees’ attitudes matter. Rather than go down a technical rathole, Cook wants his workers to see this as a question of technological progress and service to customers, which are core values at Apple.]

Over the past week I’ve received messages from thousands of people in all 50 states, and the overwhelming majority are writing to voice their strong support. One email was from a 13-year-old app developer who thanked us for standing up for “all future generations.” And a 30-year Army veteran told me, “Like my freedom, I will always consider my privacy as a treasure.” . . . I’ve also heard from many of you and I am especially grateful for your support. [Unlike in the customer letter, Cook now uses the pronoun “I.” When communicating with employees, this makes the letter personal. Notice how Cook bolsters Apple’s framing of the issues as protecting customers.]

People trust Apple to keep their data safe, and that data is an increasingly important part of everyone’s lives. You do an incredible job protecting them with the features we design into our products. Thank you. [Cook closes by deploying “you” to rally his troops.]


Combined with the previous letter to customers, this employee letter demonstrates leadership. Calmly, Tim Cook explains why the company is refusing a federal order. I don’t believe any other company in America could do this and receive this level of support from its employees and the public at large.

Apple’s Answers page defuses difficult issues

The key word in the Apple-FBI dispute is “but.” Because no matter what argument you come up with, the other side has a “but.” To fend off objections — and there are many — Apple created an Answers page. Excerpts:

Why is Apple objecting to the government’s order?
. . . First, the government would have us write an entirely new operating system for their use. They are asking Apple to remove security features and add a new ability to the operating system to attack iPhone encryption, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by “brute force,” trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer. . . . The passcode lock and requirement for manual entry of the passcode are at the heart of the safeguards we have built in to iOS. . . .

Second, the order would set a legal precedent that would expand the powers of the government and we simply don’t know where that would lead us. Should the government be allowed to order us to create other capabilities for surveillance purposes, such as recording conversations or location tracking? This would set a very dangerous precedent. [This is not an easy thing to explain. But in simple terms, Apple demonstrates what the new iOS would mean, and why they believe it would create a dangerous legal precedent. Notice again how Apple uses “we” to make this seem like a personal dispute.]

Is it technically possible to do what the government has ordered?
Yes, it is certainly possible to create an entirely new operating system to undermine our security features as the government wants. [It’s now about what’s possible, it’s about what’s right.]

Could Apple build this operating system just once, for this iPhone, and never use it again?
[I]n the digital world, the technique, once created, could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. . . . Law enforcement agents around the country have already said they have hundreds of iPhones they want Apple to unlock if the FBI wins this case. . . .  Of course, Apple would do our best to protect that key, but in a world where all of our data is under constant threat, it would be relentlessly attacked by hackers and cybercriminals. . . . [W]e strongly believe the only way to guarantee that such a powerful tool isn’t abused and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands is to never create it. [Apple’s argument is that it’s not possible to keep the unlocking tool safe. This narrative, in which law enforcement uses it to unlock lots of phones, makes that vivid. “Do you trust the police?” is a relevant question to raise, given everything from the Snowden revelations to police shootings of unarmed suspects. Notice how the sentence about law enforcement is in active voice with the agents as the subject, while the sentence about the tool being abused is in passive. Apple wants you think about the the tool without thinking too much about the individual hackers.]

Has Apple unlocked iPhones for law enforcement in the past?
No. We also provide guidelines on our website for law enforcement agencies so they know exactly what we are able to access and what legal authority we need to see before we can help them. . . . For devices running the iPhone operating systems prior to iOS 8 and under a lawful court order, we have extracted data from an iPhone. [Apple denies these reports, which weakened its position. In simple language, they draw the distinction between extracting data, which they do, and weakening security, which they won’t.]

Is there any other way you can help the FBI?
We have done everything that’s both within our power and within the law to help in this case.  . . . One of the strongest suggestions we offered was that they pair the phone to a previously joined network, which would allow them to back up the phone and get the data they are now asking for. Unfortunately, we learned that while the attacker’s iPhone was in FBI custody the Apple ID password associated with the phone was changed. Changing this password meant the phone could no longer access iCloud services. [“Was changed” is in passive voice because if it was written actively, Apple would have to accuse the FBI of screwing up by changing the password.]

This is a legal battle, which Apple will certainly fight. But it’s also a battle of public opinion. Apple’s use of clear communication with both employees and the public is its best weapon in that battle.

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  1. Josh I am calling BS on your headline.

    The Pew report, as you state, has 38% supporting the not unlocking the phone/Apple’s position. That is far from half as your headline states. 11% have “no opinion on the matter” and Apple did not get them on their side. Unless your iPhone autocorrect substitutes Apathy with Apple, I don’t see how you can combine them to get to half.

    1. I guess I should have said “Apple gets half of a America not to take the FBI’s side.”

      In my opinion, “I don’t back the FBI” is a pretty strong pro-Apple statement, given the presumption in favor of law enforcement. But I see your point.

      1. Your headline is punchy and click-worthy and I see why you did it. But with a WOBS mantra, you – like Hebrew National hot dogs – appeal to a higher authority 🙂

          1. WOBS is short for WithOut BullShit. Josh, even incorporated under WOBS LLC if you look at the site footer below.

          2. I’m sure there’s an “embarrassed face” emoticon for these situations!

            Thanks, guys.

  2. Headline aside, this was a masterful dissection of the language being used by the Apple corporate communication team. I will be sharing it with my students in PR Fundamentals at Metro State University.