A journalist conscripted into writing propaganda. A sad pharmacist compelled to make drugs used in lethal injections. A doctor FORCED TO GIVE SOMEONE CANCER.
While Apple tussles with the government over whether it will comply with a court order that would require it to help law enforcement break into an iPhone, it’s busy winning first prize for the most bombastic embrace of slippery-slope metaphors used by a PR machine.
Apple is popping out scary hypotheticals at a clip that isn’t just keeping up with the news cycle—it’s shaping it. Take Apple CEO Tim Cook’s recent ABC News appearance, where he said making a master key for the FBI would be “the software equivalent of cancer.” Cook’s colorful language made headlines everywhere, including one at this very blog.
The ongoing PR campaign is also making Cook look like a crusading badass. Whole-wheat toast-lookin Tim Cook. The shift in his public image is a tremendous achievement in and of itself. Remember that Cook has long been considered a notoriously boring public speaker, wooden where Steve Jobs was vivacious, measured where Jobs was flamboyant. This scuffle with the FBI has done more for Cook’s public image than launching a $50 iPhone made of diamonds and seratonin ever could. (I think I caught Outlandish Figures of Speech Syndrome, but whatever.)
Just to be clear: Apple’s decision to fight the government on a court order that would force it to write iPhone software weakening its own security settings is the right decision, for many reasons: It would set a disturbing legal precedent. It would be an undue burden on the company. And it would violate the First Amendment, since software code is legally considered speech, and the Constitution prohibits the government from forcing speech.
That said, Apple’s rhetoric has sailed right past “persuasive” and into the vaunted realm of “brilliantly deranged.”
The FBI is busy serving up its own brand of faux-folksy “we gotta look ‘em in the eye” spin, but it hasn’t been able to command control over the public debate in the same way as Apple. The FBI claims that Apple’s resistance to help unlock the San Bernardino killer’s iPhone negatively impacts the agency’s counterterrorism efforts, but it’s already had to walk back on some of its arguments—for instance, FBI Director James Comey admitted today that the court order could set a precedent, which undermines the whole “c’mon it’s just one terrorist’s phone” argument that the government trotted out.
To make things even sweeter, this is an opportune moment for Apple to reclaim the hearts and minds of the public. Not that it was suffering in sales, but the company’s reputation for innovation has lost its shine in recent years. This swashbuckling posture may boost enthusiasm for the Apple brand in advance of its March product announcement.
Tim Cook will never be the product visionary Steve Jobs styled himself to be, but now he is carving out his own legacy as an even grander champion—protector of privacy, defender of the Constitution.
No matter how this shakes out for the people who use Apple products—after all, Apple may still lose this fight in court—this is a triumph of aggressive PR that furthers a branding makeover for Apple.