Apple’s handled its PR wrong in FBI standoff, says Steve Jobs’ ex-publicist


Silicon Valley PR vet Andy Cunningham honed her skills at Apple.
Andy Cunningham played a key role in Steve Jobs' life for many years.
Photo: Andy Cunningham

Apple hasn’t done enough to publicly present its side of the current privacy standoff with the FBI, concerning whether or not it should build an iPhone backdoor, claims Andrea “Andy” Cunningham, Steve Jobs’ former publicist.

“I think [Steve] would’ve spent more time framing the issue for the [public] than I think [Apple under Tim Cook has] done so far,” Cunningham says.

In particular, Cunningham thinks Apple hasn’t done enough to convince people that this is a precedent case — which will be used to push forward future legislation — rather than just about helping hack one iPhone, which the likes of Bill Gates have suggested.

“Everybody talks about this being a privacy issue and, to me, it’s not privacy at all,” Cunningham said. “It’s a precedent case.”

Cunningham was never directly employed by Apple, although she worked with Jobs from 1983 onwards, during both his original stint at Apple and later at NeXT and Pixar. She notably collaborated on the Macintosh launch plan, while employed at PR agency Regis McKenna, and later founded her own Cunningham Communication, Inc.

Despite being out of the Apple loop (no pun intended) for a while now, Cunningham makes it clear that she sides with the company in its fight against the FBI. In the new interview, which she conducted with the Chicago Tribune, Cunningham likens the creation of a “govOS” to a fictitious “situation in China … where the government wants a company to develop a bomb that they don’t want to develop.”

I partly agree with Cunningham’s assessment — although it’s very easy to fall back on the lazy “Steve Jobs would have done X, Y, and Z better” argument. As charismatic as Cook can be when he’s interviewed, he did look noticeably nervous when he talked about the FBI case at Monday’s keynote. Steve Jobs, meanwhile, was an unrivaled public speaker, and I have no doubt that an impassioned speech from him could have helped convince large numbers of people to side with Apple.

But it’s also difficult to imagine Jobs allowing his lieutenants to write editorials in the paper or appear on television to talk about the issue as Cook did when Craig Federighi was allowed to publish a recent editorial in the Washington Post, or Eddy Cue did when he gave a Spanish language interview to Univision News. Jobs may have been a better public speaker than Cook, but Apple’s position has been bolstered by having so many different voices speaking out about the same issue.

As Cult of Mac editor Leander Kahney wrote this week, Tim Cook has also shown himself to be more than willing to speak out about non-product issues during his tenure as CEO than Jobs was — which included an letter on the subject of user privacy, in which Cook argued that the FBI’s proposals risk undermining “the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

And, hey, with public opinion increasingly turning in favor of Apple and the Justice Department cancelling its face-off with Apple in federal court at the last minute, it’s difficult to argue that Apple’s not doing something right.

Do you think that Apple has pursued the right strategy in its FBI privacy clash — or is this one instance where Jobs’ absence from the company is most keenly noted? Leave your comments below.

  • Richard

    one of those cases where you wish they had actual Steve’s DNA or clone in labs over at 1 Infinite loop – Cook certainly didn’t frame it properly, people that never heard of this issue still have no clue what is at stake here

  • Nice article. It’s frustratingly rare to see an appropriate headline and balanced perspective any more. I won’t say Apple could have done more (maybe, maybe not – I don’t feel I know enough to judge). I will say that I wished the public better understood why this was more than unlocking one phone. I think the whole discussion about govOS was too technical for most people and this seemed to be a large part of why this case would set a dangerous precedent. Could Apple have explained this better? Maybe, but there are a lot of non-technical people who wouldn’t necessarily take the time to learn this level of detail. (Insert partisan commentary of your choice here.) About Tim Cook’s nervous interview – I wonder if he was off his game because he had been prepped by a few hundred lawyers beforehand. It seems likely to me.

  • David Kaplan

    I would’ve liked to see an event that Tim did similar to antennagate with Steve. The reality distortion field was in full effect during that event. You almost felt like like the issue was so unimportant that it was embarrassing when Steve said that less than 1 additional call was dropped per hundred or whatever the figure was. Also he used the event to brag about the iPhone 4 sales and how good it was. I would’ve liked to see Tim do an event like that talking about how good iPhone security is and why the government is in the wrong.

  • MissMMess

    Yes, they could have framed it better, no question. But the risk was high. Polling suggested that the public was split evenly supporting Apple and the FBI. In an election year with so much craziness all you need is a Trump claiming you are unpatriotic and you have another mess on your hands.

  • site7000

    Everybody wants to be the Oracle of Steve Jobs. It’s the new fundamentalism. And just as dumb. Either a criticism of Tim Cook is valid or it’s not. Claiming “that what Steve Jobs would have said” doesn’t give it an ounce more credibility.

  • jameskatt

    Tim Cook did a great job. He talked in a straight forward manner – like a country boy would. And he expressed anger and disgust as appropriate. And he has been in major interviews and magazines.

    PR doesn’t help Apple so much in this case since it hinges on matters of law. And that in the end is where Apple will win. Further Apple did gather a huge amount of support from the tech industry, from rights advocates including Jessie Jackson.

    If anything, the FBI was losing the PR battle in the end.

    If anything, the FBI bid a hasty retreat to save face.

    Ironically, rumors said an Israeli intelligence company has volunteered to help the FBI. What about the NSA? Is the NSA weaker than the Israelis?

  • isitjustme

    Tim Cook was’t nervous when he was talking about the fight with the FBI perhaps to slant it to this article the writer had to dig up something to match its tone.

    It is time to rest Jobs’ ghost it been dug up from the grave too often he is dead and gone.

    Btw Steve Jobs had been specking in public all his life and he is very comfortable in that position whether he is telling a lie or shooting from his hip but then he is dead and no one will know how he dealt with this so stop giving ourselves the great feelings that we know best what he will do.

  • bIg hIlL

    Interesting that nobody notices that Apple is already helping the government spies across the world to gain easy access to unlimited personal data from innocent citizens, including location, age, sex, diet, activities, and perhaps quite importantly, detailed information on health issues, including medication, which obviously could be data mined and used in nefarious means AGAINST the gullible device users, whether to create new strains of viruses without remedies, poisonous vaccines and remedies, new viruses, all of which are currently occurring in the world at large, viz: AIDS, SARS, H1N1, vaccines, diabetes, cancer, digestive related illnesses, etc., the list goes on.

    • John Hamm

      Really, source?

      • bIg hIlL

        Tomato Ketchup

  • Dilldeezy

    She can say what she wants, but Apple is winning the PR battle with the Government right now, although it did take a while for the tide to shift.