Antennagate won't hurt Apple's image, say PR experts

Public relations experts give Apple a thumbs up when it comes to how it handled 'antennagate'

Apple flunked its first response to the iPhone 4's antenna problems, but the company turned everything around with a last-minute press conference and free bumper cases, one crisis communications expert said.

"I think after a real slow start, they've done very well," said Jonathan Bernstein, a crisis management specialist and tech enthusiast. Apple chief executive Steve Jobs initially came across as arrogant and uncaring, Bernstein said, but ultimately the company was candid in explaining what went wrong with the iPhone 4 and how it would be fixed.

Since the iPhone 4's launch, Apple has endured complaints about the iPhone 4's external antenna. The phone loses signal or drops calls, mostly in areas of low coverage, when a finger bridges the gap in the antenna on the phone's lower left-hand corner.

Apple initially dismissed the problem as a "non-issue," advising people to buy a bumper case or hold the phone differently. Then the company blamed the way signal bars are displayed, and promised a software update. Finally, Apple called a press conference last Friday, in which Jobs admitted the iPhone 4 is not perfect, claimed that all phones have this issue, and offered free bumper cases or full refunds on returns.

The latest response pleased Bernstein, who said that barring any other foul-ups with the iPhone or other products in the near future, Apple should escape this fiasco with its reputation intact. "The best defense against it is to have a strong cushion of good will already established. Apple has that," Bernstein said.

Still, he said Apple's response wasn't perfect. Jobs didn't do enough to reassure customers about the quality of the product. Bernstein used his wife as an example of how people are still concerned; she recently went to an Apple Store to ask questions about the iPhone 4's antenna, where previously she wouldn't have hesitated to buy the phone. A recent survey by IDC found that 66 percent of people who own older iPhones are holding off on upgrades, and 25 percent of new buyers are now delaying their puchases.

Bernstein also didn't think much of how Apple blamed other phone makers for having antenna problems. "Pointing fingers at other people is never a first line of defense unless other people have deliberately and directly harmed you," he said.

Jim Lukaszewski, another crisis communications expert and an author of six books on public relations, echoed Jobs' claim that the iPhone 4 antenna issue was blown out of proportion. "I don't know anybody who's worried about it," Lukaszewski said. "My sons are the folks who waited in line since three in the morning to have this thing, and they just roll their eyes at all this coverage."

Lukaszewski said imperfect products are just the nature of the technology business, and that Apple fixed the problem the best it could by taking action. "This company is really a model in handling these kinds of problems, because they do what they're supposed to do as soon as they're capable of doing it," he said.

Bernstein said Apple is subject to extra scrutiny because of the expectations people have of Apple products. The BP oil spill wasn't surprising, he said, but everyone's shocked to hear of a flaw in the latest iPhone.

"It's kind of the bigger they are, the harder they fall phenomenon," Bernstein said.

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Jared Newman

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