The Apple Maps Debacle Gave Tim Cook A Chance To Outshine Steve Jobs—At Apologies

Tim Cook’s apology for "Mapplegate" spoke volumes about his leadership style. From a PR perspective, contrition and solutions trump justifications and explanations—here's what you can learn from the master of mea culpa.

"Apple" and "apologize" are two words that don’t usually fall in the same sentence. Indeed, Apple instructs its retail employees to avoid acts of contrition as a matter of principle. "Do not apologize for the business [or] the technology," its Genius manual commands.

Following this playbook, when faced with the debacle that is Mapplegate, Cupertino’s flacks first tried spin. "We launched this new map service knowing it is a major initiative and that we are just getting started with it," a spokeswoman told AllThingsD. But the brush-off backfired, hard. As Gizmodo put it, "The New Apple: It Doesn’t Just Work."

Realizing that the story wasn’t dying down, the time came for the CEO to step up. Tim Cook needed to communicate two things—(1) an apology, and (2) a promise to do better—both of which he did with aplomb.

Indeed, his open letter is brilliant and beautiful. Apple has done apologies before, but Cook is carrying Cupertino into areas where Steve Jobs hesitated to venture: candor, contrition, and competition. That is, he acknowledges the problem up front and doesn’t make excuses. He apologizes directly and without resorting to qualification. And he takes the unprecedented step to name and promote competitors—not one, not two, but four of them.

This last point is especially newsworthy in that in order to improve, Apple Maps needs people to use it and submit feedback—which they can’t do if they’re availing themselves of Google Maps, Bing, Waze, or MapQuest. Even more stunning: Apple has gone one step further and created an entire featured section in its app store for competing third-party maps. Wow!

These are actions born of both hubris and humility. Hubris because Apple is so confident it can best the competitors, it doesn’t mind giving them a leg up on its own turf. And humility because it’s admitting that its own product is inferior. Rare is the corporate executive who can triangulate so shrewdly. While Apple is buying off its competitors, who always appreciate free press, it’s buying the goodwill of its customers, who always appreciate forthrightness.

Is this enough to stem the PR problem? Yes. Apple customers are savvy and forgiving. They realize that mapping the world is long-term drudgery, and as we saw with Siri and Lightning, neither half-baked products nor gouging will dampen their fervor.

Moreover, measured by hard numbers—namely, Apple’s soaring stock price—these public displays of apology accomplish what they need to: damage control. Whether it’s an open letter on Flash, an email to a blogger about porn in the app store, or a news conference about antennagate, Cupertino knows how to contain a crisis. (Of course, given the company’s Teflon touch, what works for Apple will not work for everyone.)

A New Apple
Do these actions represent a kindler, humbler Apple? Yes.

The differences between Tim Cook’s apology and those from his predecessor speak volumes about the two men personally and as leaders. From a PR perspective, Cook’s approach is more conventional and more effective: It’s better to apologize than to rationalize. Indeed, Jobs’s style—full of qualifications, hubris, and minutiae—is an example of how not to say "Sorry." Customers want contrition and solutions, not justifications and explanations.

Jobs could get away with this because he was Steve Jobs. By contrast, most CEOs would be well advised not to get into the weeds, but to rip the Band-Aid off up front. Leave the details for the media to report. An executive’s job is to speak in broad themes, not get bogged down in details about who is and who isn’t eligible for a rebate. Ironically, Steve Jobs ignored his own mantra: that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

The reasons for these disparities are instructive. Steve Jobs was an artist first and a businessman second. He loved to spar, to extol the beauty of Apple products and trash his competitors for "having no taste." He saw crises as teachable moments—for customers. To apologize meant conceding defeat.

By contrast, Tim Cook is a businessman through and through. He’s a numbers guy—pragmatic, not philosophical. He’s low-key, clear-eyed, and straight-laced. He may not thrill you, but he won’t infuriate you. He just wants to put his head down, kill the crisis, and get back to work.

Put another way, Cook doesn’t share Jobs’s self-righteousness, allowing him to see the value of a mea culpa. Unlike his predecessor, he’s not burdened by the creator’s compulsion to lecture.

Indeed, Steve Jobs was combative and defensive because so much of his life—indeed, his very identity—was tied up with Apple. To criticize Apple was to criticize him, and he reacted as we all do when insulted: He took it personally. No doubt, he didn’t heed the advice of his PR people—he was Apple’s PR department.

That may work for a larger-than-life figure like Steve Jobs, but for other executives, the corporate apology must follow the three "C"s: it must be clear, it must be concise, and it must be candid. Perhaps Mark Twain, that eternal enemy of PR speak, put it best: "When in doubt, tell the truth: You’ll confound your enemies and astound your friends."

—Jonathan Rick is the chief executive of the Jonathan Rick Group, a strategic communications firm in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @jrick, where he comments daily on the art of corporate communications.

[Image: Flickr user Shahram Sharif]

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  • Todd Post

    Crisis communications can be as simple as saying the following:

    1) I'm sorry
    2) I'm responsible
    3) I'll fix itA lot of companies could learn from Apple here. I blogged about this when Groupon screwed up with its Super Bowl ads and took a week to figure this out:

  • Amber King

    Agree. Tim and Steve are two different kinds of leaders. Steve was firm and perfectionist. Tim on the other hand is empathetic.

  • Henriboll

    Would Apple's Maps snafu have happened if Steve Jobs were alive?If Steve Job was alive it would not going to a cure,Steve Jobs was known for his perfectionism and obsession with the detail.

  • Slack

    Do you honestly believe that these "open letters" are written by company executives?

  • Gkinchina2

    Millions of vulnerable people (the old, the infirm or with low tech literacy) who upgraded from IOS5 to IOS6, are unaware of all this. Using the new maps as they would the old, they risk injury and in some cases, death. This is because the new Apple maps data is very inaccurate outside of the USA - every second search points people to the wrong location or in the wrong direction. Apple should immediately include a prominent warning notification on its ios6 maps app. Apple has made things worse by disallowing a revert to IOS5 - millions want to downgrade/revert to the old OS but cannot.

  • Moopy

    if an app tells you to drive off a bridge into open water - and you follow it - maybe you NEED to be in a car submerged in water

  • Lukedavidjohnson

    Steve Jobs would have never let such a piece of garbage software be released. This apologizing New Apple is just a rotten worm eaten Apple. I would rather a leader who is a stubborn dick that creates flawless awe inspiring products than a kind apologetic leader that produces junk. I don't see how you think Tim Cook could possibly be a better leader because he isn't self righteous. He simply has no reason to be, because he knows it sucks.

  • Jonathan Rick

    Hi Luke -

    Thanks for your comment. It's an interesting thought experiment: would Maps have been released in its current form if Steve Jobs were around? For that matter, would Siri have been?

    While I'm tempted to agree that Jobs never would have allowed such inferior products to see the light of day, it's important to remember that he approved Ping and MobileMe--both duds of the first order.

  • Simon

    Flying under the radar is the even more egregious lightening connector debacle. I love my new iPhone 5 but the new connector technology and lack of availability now is inexcusable. If I don't carry around my one charger with me I'm screwed. Chargers/ adapters should have been widely available along with the release of the phone.... They are not.

  • Moopy

    buy adapter. carry charger. 
    or don't buy the phone, stick with your know, deal with it...