PR Experts: iPhone 4 Hardware Recall Is “Inevitable”

The iPhone 4 "Death Grip" will force Apple to issue a hardware recall, crisis management experts told

Apple will be forced to recall the iPhone 4 following Consumer Reports tests proving the “Death Grip” antenna issue is not software related, but a hardware flaw, PR experts say.

“Apple will be forced to do a recall of this product,” said Professor Matthew Seeger, an expert in crisis communication. “It’s critically important. The brand image is the most important thing Apple has. This is potentially devastating.”

Crisis communication experts contacted by, including Chris Lehane, former Clinton White House “Master of Disaster,” agree: the iPhone 4 reception issue presents a Toyota-style PR crisis for Apple, and the company must respond with a more meaningful fix than a software patch.

Apple acknowledged the issue earlier this month but said the problem was caused by the way the iPhone calculates signal strength. The company has promised to issue a software fix shortly. Many critics viewed Apple’s response as spin, which was compounded on Monday by a devastating report from Consumer Reportssaying the reception issue is hardware related.

Toyota has been severely punished for its foot-dragging response to concerns about the safety of the Prius. Toyota recalled about 10 million vehicles worldwide and its reputation has been seriously damaged.

“Apple needs to put this fire out now,” said Dr. Larry Barton, a leading expert in crisis management and author of Crisis Leadership Now. “There has to be a military-like response to this issue. And we have not seen this kind of urgency.”

Dr. Barton said Apple should quickly issue a statement that either strongly refutes Consumer Reports‘ tests; or admit the issue and detail some kind of hardware fix. Saying the iPhone 4 has a problem calculating signal strength doesn’t cut it, Dr. Barton said.

“Their response has been lackluster,” he said. “It’s been borderline irresponsible. They are in danger of betraying customers’ trust and hurting the brand, which is infinitely more valuable than any one product.”

Consumer Reports is a well-respected publication with a long history of being impartial and fair, Dr. Barton noted. “Their advisory is a serious one.” he said.

Dr. Barton is a former professor at Harvard Business School, Penn State, University of Nevada at Las Vegas and Boston College. He was Vice President of Crisis Management at Motorola from 1995 to 1999.

Crisis communications expert Chris Lehane, the “Master of Disaster,” a nickname earned managing bad PR for the Clinton White House, said Apple dug itself into a deep hole with its software fix response, which was obviously rushed.

“It’s the ‘half-loaf’ approach,” he said. “Apple was under tremendous pressure to respond. They pushed out some information that wasn’t really baked.”

Lehane said the statement only raised a red flag for organizations like Consumer Reports to take a close look at the issue.

“They found themselves in a hole, and they dug a deeper hole,” he said.

Lehane contrasted this to Apple’s response to the price drop of the original iPhone back in 2007. Faced with a backlash from early adopters, Steve Jobs quickly published an apology on Apple’s website and issued a refund.

“You acknowledge it; you address it; you deal with it,” Lehane said. “Apple must protect its brand image, its crown jewels, at all cost. Apple has enormous consumer loyalty but it depends on whether people believe it’s credible.”

To protect its image, Apple will have to recall the iPhone, said Prof. Seeger, who is chair of the Department of Communication at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Prof. Seeger said Apple will likely delay a recall, and may issue a temporary “patch” such as free bumpers. However, a recall is unavoidable to protect the brand, which is more valuable than the cost of a recall, Prof. Seeger said.

“Apple lives and dies by its reputation,” he said. “We pay a premium for its products. We expect them to operate on a premium level. It’s very unfortunate, but they will have no choice but to mount a recall.”

Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.

UPDATE: PR expert Rene A. Henry, author of Communicating In A Crisis, also said Apple should issue a hardware recall. “They’ve got a problem and it’s no different from Toyota,” he said by phone this morning (too late to include in the original story). “They’ve got to recall and replace it if they want to protect their image and reputation.”

“It’s going to be expensive,” he added: “At least they are helping BP out. They’re keeping some of the heat off them.”