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I'm sure you're all following the iPhone 4 story. If you hold the phone a certain way, it drops calls.

In a press conference on the subject, Steve Jobs said, "We're not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy."

Jobs got a lot of heat about his response. Where was the apology? Where was the part where he acknowledged that the buck stops with him, and that Apple made a big mistake that never should have happened? That's public relations 101, right?

I'm a student of how language influences people. Apple's response to the iPhone 4 problem didn't follow the public relations playbook because Jobs decided to rewrite the playbook. (I pause now to insert the necessary phrase Magnificent Bastard.) If you want to know what genius looks like, study Jobs' words: "We're not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy."

Jobs changed the entire argument with nineteen words. He was brief. He spoke indisputable truth. And later in his press conference, he offered clear fixes.

Did it work? Check out the media response. There's lots of talk about whether other smartphones are perfect or not. There's lots of talk about whether Jobs' response was the right one. But the central question that was in everyone's head before the press conference - "Is the iPhone 4 a dud" - has, well, evaporated. Part of the change in attitude is because the fixes Apple offered are adequate. But those fixes easily could have become part of the joke if handled in an apologetic "please kick me" way.

If Jobs had not changed the context from the iPhone 4 in particular to all smartphones in general, I could make you a hilarious comic strip about a product so poorly made that it won't work if it comes in contact with a human hand. But as soon as the context is changed to "all smartphones have problems," the humor opportunity is gone. Nothing kills humor like a general and boring truth.

I've wondered for some time if Jobs studied hypnosis, or if he's some sort of freakish natural. And I wonder how much of his language is planned versus off-the-cuff. He speaks and acts like a master hypnotist. (For new readers, I'm a trained hypnotist myself, and it definitely takes one to know one.)

I have long had a name for Jobs' clever move. I call it the "High Ground Maneuver." I first noticed an executive using it years ago, and I've since used it a number of times when the situation called for it. The move involves taking an argument up to a level where you can say something that is absolutely true while changing the context at the same time. Once the move has been executed, the other participants will fear appearing small-minded if they drag the argument back to the detail level. It's an instant game changer.

For example, if a military drone accidentally kills civilians, and there is a public outcry, it would be a mistake for the military to spend too much time talking about what went wrong with that particular mission. The High Ground Maneuver would go something like this: "War is messy. No one wants civilians to die. We will study this situation to see how we can better avoid it in the future."

Notice that the response is succinct, indisputably true, and that the context has been taken to a higher level, about war in general. That's what Jobs did. It's a powerful technique, and you can use it at home.

There's a limit to the method. I don't think that BP could have gotten away with it as a response to the oil spill because the problem was so large and it seemed unique to BP. But if they had tried the High Ground Maneuver, it would have looked like this: "All of the easy sources of oil have been found fifty years ago. If the oil industry stops taking risks, many of you would be out of work in less than a decade. We all want a future of clean energy, but no one sees a way to get there as quickly as we need to. We will do everything we can to clean up the spill, and to make things right with the Gulf economy."

Someday business students will read about Steve Jobs' response to the iPhone 4 issue and they will learn that the High Ground Maneuver (probably by some other name) became the public relations standard for consumer products companies from that day on.
 
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+33 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 19, 2010
I like the idea of at least tiny bits of truth finally making their way into corporate blah. It's a small step, but at least in the right direction...
 
 
+25 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 19, 2010
@token
"toys were significantly inferior in performance to earlier phones"

1) your choice of the insulting 'toys' lets us know how easily to discount your ad hominem
2) there is no 'significantly inferior... performance'. Performance is superior unless you're intent on making the bars drop (rarely making calls fail.)

Get over the hate.
 
 
Jul 19, 2010
When a new version of the Intel Pentium chip (in 1994) was found to have a floating-point bug, Intel initially wanted to hide it. It would be invisible 99.9999998% of the time. But they were exposed (just like the iPhone was), and Intel quickly fixed the error on the production line, and offered to replace any buggy chip for free. No questions asked. People accepted this resolution, but most never swapped out their buggy chips for fixed ones. Sometimes just making the offer (and backing it up when asked) is all that is required.

By trying to cover up a minor issue by making it a non-issue, Apple made it a bigger issue.

An issue is as big as its customers say it is, so don't try to tell them differently. Just fix it. Take a financial hit this quarter and offer to replace all the buggy iPhones with ones that have antennas that meet or exceed customer expectations.
 
 
Jul 19, 2010
I lost a lot of respect for Steve Jobs and Apple. Just because he can weasel through a gaff by deflecting the issue and not apologizing, only means he hasn't solved the problem. "Hey guys, let's put out a firmware upgrade that adds 1 or 2 bars to the real signal strength. That should please those morons who spend more each month on spotty phone service and pretty electronic devices than they invest in their retirement."

We're sick and tired of clever PR bailouts and corporate lobbyists. Pleeaasse. How about honesty in business for a change? Apple is following Toyota's lead as a PR-first, solutions-second company, and it is not pretty.

Scott, you could do several months of strips on an Apple-like company who cares more about looking good and boosting their stock price than caring about admitting mistakes and fixing them. Isn't that one of the pillars of your humor in the first place? Call them out on it. Please.
 
 
+72 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 19, 2010
I think that a number of people here have succumbed to the Five-Minute-Hate here. This week it's Apple, in the past it's been IBM, Microsoft, and dozens of others. And hence they've missed the point.

This is *not* the usual corporate !$%*!$%*!$%*! As was demonstrated on stage, all phones in fact *do* have this problem. This isn't a case of "We screwed up, now we'll try to distract you." Many people are trying to paint it like that, but it's a sure giveaway that they've left reason behind to join the five-minute-hate.

As Mr Adams noted, the key difference is in that "general truth" bit. Every phone, indeed, has an antenna and can be attenuated by touching in certain areas. Independent testing has verified that the iPhone 4, if you don't intentionally kill the antenna, has *better* reception than other smartphones. Jobs came out and said: "We're going to try to help people out, but: this is life. In other news, if you drop other brands of phones they ALSO fall to the earth due to gravity, just like an iPhone. Film at 11."

Jobs was indeed engaged in a very specific sort of argument that has nothing at all in common with generic corporate weaselry.
 
 
-42 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 19, 2010
Such fossil oil gravity bong in gulf for fish and dophins are not perfect, may be they're just trying to let everything get high......with salt.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 19, 2010
Case in point: http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/dangerroom/2010/07/20100719_release.pdf
 
 
-125 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 19, 2010
Uh-huh... I prefer to regard Jobs's response as simple weasel tactics. If iPhone4 users hadn't noticed that their new toys were significantly inferior in performance to earlier phones, there wouldn't be a problem. What I know is that my Blackberry almost never drops calls, and I get excellent connections no matter how I hold it. If Apple continues to produce inferior or defective products, the 'High Ground' will start to look like quicksand. This is somewhat akin to Jobs's explanation for excluding Flash from the iPad...it's a security hole and a kludge [to paraphrase]. Sorry, I want a portable web-surfing, media-playing device that doesn't crap out on thousands of websites. So, no sale again. Anybody fooled by by Jobs' verbal tactics wants to be fooled, IMO. [Isn't that the basis for hypnosis, BTW?]
 
 
+50 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 19, 2010
Scott! You are brilliant! Now, how can you help me transition my wife's complaints about general level of slobiness to the higher-ground?

Here's what I've got so far:

"We all know that nobody is perfect but if you'll shut up about my being a slob, I'll buy you an iphone"

I think I'm missing something...

 
 
Jul 19, 2010
Jobs' response managed to say what everyone who has ever worked retail is already thinking: customers are really whiny, and they should be thanking you for fulfilling their needs. But he somehow sold it in such a way that it felt less like a specific technical flaw and more like a part of a process of quality improvement. Or something.

But BP can't pull that off, because Americans don't like to admit that we're near the end of the oil age. That's not a "widely accepted" truth -- it's one of our society's embarrassing public secrets.
 
 
Jul 19, 2010
As a former phone salesman I knew exactly what Steve Jobs was doing here, his response of trying to equate the iPhone 4's problems to that of any other smartphone made me angry. No smartphone has quite received the heat the new iPhone has, yes part of that is simply because it is an Apple product, but the public deserves much better than for Jobs to skirt around the issue.
 
 
Jul 19, 2010
President Obama has used the High Ground Maneuver (HGM) for years. Look where it's gotten him lately. If you can't fix a problem, customers don't care. They will pillory you for it.

ETA: The BP / IP4 comparission is weak. The IP4 problem is an occasional inconvience. The BP problem is a weapon of mass destruction.
 
 
Jul 19, 2010
You're full of surprises, Scott. What do you use hypnosis for?
 
 
+38 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 19, 2010
A good paraphrase: "We made a mistake - we stepped into the realm of imperfection that our competitors dwell in. We will seek to fix it, and make you happy."

Subtle. Evil. Genius.
 
 
-72 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 19, 2010
The High Ground Maneuver is nothing more than insolence. Yes, we all know nothing is perfect. We knew that before the iPhone 4. But you still have to apologize when you screw something up, if you really do care about your users, at least. You have to apologize when you bump into somebody at the mall. You have to apologize when you drop your change while handing it to a cashier. You have to apologize when you blow a crapload of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. And you have to apologize when you sell an expensive phone promising basic functionality when it has no such thing.

You said Jobs got a lot of heat for that response. I think he deserved it.
 
 
-32 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 19, 2010
This feels too much like the dark side of the Force to me.
Jobs: "We're not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy." <waves hand>
Fanbois: "Nothing's perfect, I'm happy"
 
 
Jul 19, 2010
This should be required reading for all DOD spokespersons tasked with carrying out Gates' new policy on dealing with the media.
 
 
Jul 19, 2010
I'm hoping that Sony kicks Job's butt.
 
 
Jul 19, 2010
It was surprising to me that he took his company/product down a level or two and compared it with the competition's phones. They are supposed to be way above and beyond the competition...

Also, there are few companies/CEOs that could get away with that. AAPL has enjoyed a stellar track record, and this allows them a few silver bullets to use if they have to.

He mentioned the high dollar phone/antenna research test center. If this was so good, then why did they not catch this ahead of time?

(for the record, I have 4 and have not noticed this issue. Perhaps I got a good phone, or maybe I am just used to AT&Ts spotty $#%#&@ coverage for the last 15 years...)
 
 
Jul 19, 2010
They already have a term for "High Ground Maneuver" = "Getting Jobed"
 
 
 
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