Apple, the slowdown scandal better keep you honest

The alleged battery limitations on iPhones are a lesson in why companies need to be honest with customers

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They say, “don’t believe everything you hear.” I say, treat every fantastical thing you hear as a lead to something that might actually be true. Case in point: we all said for years that Apple was slowing its older models down in a bid to make us go on buying their new products. Only now do we know that.

Well, half of that. What Apple actually admitted is that, starting in 2016, they’ve been uploading slow-down software to iPhones 6 and newer via their software updates. The reasoning?

“All rechargeable batteries are consumable components that become less effective as they chemically age and their ability to hold a charge diminishes,” Apple stated in an apology message on their website. “We delivered a software update that improves power management during peak workloads to avoid unexpected shutdowns . . . In some cases users may experience longer launch times for apps and other reductions in performance.”

“Our customers’ trust means everything to us. We will never stop working to earn and maintain it,” Apple stated in their conclusion, after promising things like cheaper batteries and “new features that give users more visibility into the health of their iPhone’s battery.”

But trust is not just about giving; it’s about communication. Apple’s promising its customers a bunch of new things to make up for their mistake, but they haven’t promised to be more transparent about future, non-battery-related issues.

Why are PR departments so hesitant to just tell their consumers the truth about setbacks? Transparency has been demonstrated to be an incredibly positive factor for businesses, so it’s ethical and pragmatic.

In a media and popular culture class I took last year, we studied a chapter from a book called Do the Right Thing: PR Tips for a Skeptical Public written by Vancouverite PR expert James Hoggan. One anecdote Hoggan relates is an experience at a tech company, where after a long period of understating the pitfalls he and his group were running into, it came time to put out an especially precarious press release.

After considering what the ethical course of action would be, they ended up telling the cold hard truth — and it was the best idea they could have had. Their shareholders were happy with the honesty, and, “perversely, the stock price [of the company] went up.”

Nowadays, North Americans are very, very aware of the possibility that they’re being fooled by big companies. In fact, we’re very much predisposed to assume that that’s what’s happening, because the flaws and near-hypnotic nature of capitalism as an institution is so salient in pop culture and social media. If you want consumers to like you, you need to prove yourself to be different from what they expect. Show them they can trust you.

Take a second to Google “PR transparency.” Or I can just do it for you, whatever. Sure enough, you’ll find dozens upon dozens of articles explaining how PR firms need to just be forthcoming with information. In particular, Digital Glue points out that in the event of a leak, social media makes it close to impossible to keep mistakes on the DL. In other words: the truth will come out, anyway, so you might as well just bring it to the fore.

But Apple still hasn’t sussed that out? Surprising, but not incomprehensible. The thing is, Apple actually had a really good reason to slow software down: battery limitations. Now, that reason might be comorbid with the desire to keep enslaving us to Brave New World-style “ending is better than mending” mentality, but that doesn’t negate the validity of the battery life problem. If they had just been open from the start, none of this would have been an issue.

Now that it is an issue, well, I’m sure Apple will recover. It’s Apple. But in the long-term, they would benefit from taking away a lesson in honest communication with their customers.

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