“We are sinking!” “What are you sinking about?” – Apple’s delayed response to the FBI

About a week and a half ago, one of my cologs (blog and colleague… anyone?) wrote an interesting piece about the 2016 crisis communication case of Apple versus the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). As Lubna, summarized in her post, the FBI played on emotion in order to further their agenda, while Apple took a stance by motioning towards the bigger picture and what the implications would be.

Lubna already stated that Apple did the right thing by responding to the FBI’s claims by focusing on facts in an arguably neutral manner, while fixing on establishing the foundation for their argument. Frames, according to van Gorp, can be understood as invitations to read something in a certain way. In line with this, the contradictory messages of the FBI and Apple can be described as a national security or terrorism frame, and a personal security or privacy frame, respectively. More specifically, Apple held that creating a backdoor for the FBI would equate to accepting potential losses to users security and could mean setting a dangerous precedent regarding the liberties the government can take.

According Schafraad and colleagues, agenda building (essentially the establishing of news via journalists) entails the creation of issues that are of public concern. The authors discuss the news factor theory, which lists multiple factors that tend to make up ‘good’ news stories. The fact that the Apple-FBI-situation brought together controversy, impact-reach, negative consequences, and elite organizations, all of which are central factors to the theory, explains how it garnered such broad attention.

As Timothy Coombs argues in his paper, when an organization is faced with a challenge-type crisis (stakeholders are upset, arguing the organization has operated inappropriately) that shows a strong resonance, said organization should deny their intentions. The FBI framed their stance in a way that would garner emotionally charged responses and the story, as mentioned above, was bound to make for an important news item. Therefore, Apple was right to respond by denying malintent and repairing their position by stating clear points as to why they actually did not comply.

Being the hugely well-known global player that they are and offering solid arguments, Apple not only function as opinion leaders themselves, but additionally were supported by other opinion leaders soon after. Ronald Burt established that opinion leaders or brokers have the capacity to disseminate information among groups, which then further spread internally.

Due to this, soon there was an equal part in society taking Apple’s side.

Through a number of things that came together, Apple managed to turn the page and gain a firm stance in their dispute with the FBI, after taking a week to come up with a proper response. By cleverly establishing their arguments and having that stance properly resonate throughout a number of outlets and opinion leaders, they were able to fight their way out of the initial underdog position. As we can see, swift, yet thought-out, sophisticated measures have the power of resurfacing a seemingly sinking ship.

So the next time you are captain of the Titanic, about 12.7 seconds after having hit that iceberg, don’t run to the leak with a mop-bucket right away, but maybe rather reflect on the situation – and then take appropriate measures.

…alright, that might not have been the best analogy, but you get the point.

About the author: 
Jason C. Teetz is an aspiring communication professional, 
studying Persuasive Communication (Masters) at the 
University of Amsterdam, who tries to blend the fun 
with the factual so you don't have to suffer while 
learning something.

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