How To Be Transparent Without Giving Ammunition To Your Competition
When Steve Jobs took the stage in July 2010, it wasn’t for the usual reasons.
There was no beautiful new Apple product to announce. No industry-changing innovation to unleash.
There was a problem to address. Something was wrong with the new iPhone. Something that had bloggers and tech reviewers up in arms. Critics were howling that the iPhone 4 was a flop. Financial analysts worried the problem could sink the company’s presence in the smartphone market and bruise stock prices.
What was so wrong with the phone?
The antenna was fussy. Some users were reporting that holding the phone a certain way caused it to drop calls. Many users barely noticed, others swore off the device altogether. Competitors and critics were circling the scene like sharks smelling blood. The company had to respond.
Dressed in his trademark blue jeans and black turtleneck, a noticeably somber Jobs took the stage. Gone was the smile seen less than a year earlier, when Jobs announced a product that was "beyond a doubt the most precise thing, one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever made."
The familiar white Helvetica letters popped onto the screen behind Jobs. The words were unlike anything Apple had ever communicated to the public.
“We’re not perfect."
This from a company that strives for perfection; a company led by one of history’s most famously stubborn perfectionists.
“We’re not perfect,” Jobs said to the crowd. "You know that. I know that."
Had Jobs stopped there, it would have been a disaster. It would have been the weirdest press conference in Apple history. But he continued.
And things got interesting.
"And phones aren’t perfect,” Jobs said. “We know that and we want to make our users happy."
New words appeared on the screen, which now read: “We’re not perfect. Phones aren’t perfect. We want to make all our users happy."
Here’s a rundown of exactly how this worked.
1. Fix the problem
The company didn’t just drum up a PR strategy. Their engineering and business departments went to work to fix the experience for the users.
2. Own up to your flaws
Jobs admitted that the company wasn’t perfect. Imperfect companies make mistakes. It’s not an easy thing to admit.
3. Provide context (gently)
In the big picture, smartphones were (still are) a relatively new technology; a technology that has a long way to go. By pointing out this truth about the market, the conversation elevates. Notice it only took three words here. Had jobs screamed about this point over and over, it would have been unprofessional and looked like he was desperate to change the subject. Instead, he subtly suggested a new conversation. Because the topic was true, and important, it stuck.
The Power Of Owning Your Mistakes
“Antennagate” is now seen as a minor hiccup in Apple’s otherwise polished history of product launches. It’s also an incredible case study on being transparent when things go wrong.
Because this is when transparency is the hardest. Letting the world know something has gone wrong means letting your competitors know you have a weak spot. You risk feeding ammunition to your competition, who can use it to lure business away from you.
Apple did a lot of things to do right by their customers when this happened. They explained the technical details behind the problem, they pushed out software updates, they demonstrated how using a rubber case or holding the phone differently fixes the problem. They offered to send everyone a free case (or refund their money for one they already purchased).
It’s like we always preach here at StatusPage.io: If something isn’t working for your customers, be available, be transparent, be helpful.
They owned their mistakes, and most customers went on to have an excellent smartphone experience.
So the customers are happy. Work here is done, right?
Not quite. What about the competition? What about the critics and “experts” who would try to use this information against Apple? What was their defense against that? Three words:
“Phones aren’t perfect."
Those words changed the conversation entirely. No longer was the conversation: Did Apple screw up the iPhone 4? The new conversation: Phones aren’t perfect, but Apple is trying to make people happy.
Notice how easy it would be for a competitor to capitalize on the "iPhone screwup” conversation. Yet they’d be entirely useless at turning the “phones aren’t perfect” conversation into any sort of advantage.
Sound like they're skirting responsibility? If that’s all Jobs had said, sure. If it’s “phones aren’t perfect, deal with it,” then yes, responsibility skirted. But this conversation was couched in a lengthy explanation of what the problem was and what they were doing about it.
Did it work?
Three months later Jobs made a rare appearance on the company’s quarterly earnings call to announce a record-breaking $20 billion in revenue.
Jobs even took a jab at the competition, which was helpless to turn “antennagate” into any kind of advantage.
“IPhone sales of 14.1 million were up 91 percent year-over-year, handily beating the 12.1 million phones RIM sold in their most recent quarter,” the CEO said.
The High Ground Maneuver
The author Scott Adams (and creator of the Dilbert comic strip) wrote on his blog about how Jobs handled all this.
"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."
Adams notes part of why this worked is because the fixes Apple offered were actually adequate.
“[T]he 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.”
The New Way Of Changing The Conversation
Whether they’re intentionally taking Jobs' lead or not, more and more companies are communicating this way when things go wrong. They focus on helping customers first, which elevates the conversation.
It’s not about dodging the issue, it’s about helping people see the big picture. Because when problems happen, critics will want to feed on the ugly details. It’s up to you to show the world what’s really at stake.
You don’t even have to tell people what the new conversation is, you can show them.
Consider the way Buffer surprised the tech media world in 2013 after a security breach caused a slew of spam to be posted to users’ Twitter and Facebook accounts.
While discovering and fixing the problem, the team posted real-time updates on their blog and social media accounts. This wasn’t watery PR-speak, these were real and important details.
The company leaders penned accounts about what might have gone wrong and what they were doing to fix things. When problems were resolved, they wrote lengthy explanations of the issues.
Competitors may have wanted to tell the world about a company that got hacked, but Buffer showed the world a company that jumps to aid when things go wrong.
They took the high ground. They never tried to skirt responsibility or change the subject. There’s an outdated school of public relations built on “changing the subject.” But wiith all the communication and information people have access to now, that doesn’t work. You have to elevate the subject, and you do that by actually behaving in an elevated way. Like letting people know what’s going on, sincerely trying to fix a problem.
By being as helpful as they were, the conversation elevated from “Buffer got hacked” to “Buffer is the company that gives you incredible detail if things go wrong."
It’s going to be pretty hard for any competitors to use the latter conversation against them.
Why Take the High Ground?
Here at StatusPage.io, we’ve got amazing customers who are keeping users in the loop when parts of their website are running slow or out of service. By feeding updates to their status page, users can see that they're busy fixing the problem.
Sometimes, though, companies are hesitant to let people know what’s going on during an outage. We see it all the time. You probably have, too. You visit a site and you’re encountered with a vague 500-level error page. Something’s down, but there are no details on what’s going on or when it might be fixed.
Even after things are up and running again, there’s no explanation. What happened? How long did it last? Was the case totally resolved? You get nothing. So you’re left wondering. Will it happen again? Can I count on this company being on the ball when I need them?
A lot of companies we’ve encountered say they’d like to be open and honest with their users and customers. It’s a different group they’re afraid of: the competition.
What if the competition uses this data against me? What if they lure business away from us by showing customers that our site goes down?
Sure, it’s possible. But not the way most people think. In fact, saying nothing when things go wrong is what you should really worry about. Because that’s when imaginations run wild.
But if you elevate the conversation — if you take the high ground and keep people included — this won’t be a problem.
The beauty of this system is it doesn’t only take the firepower away from your enemies, it flips the disadvantage and places it on them. You’re making the web a better place and keeping people informed, they’re keeping secrets. Now you have the upper hand, and they’re scrambling to find a strategy.
As for their plans of stealing your business? You’ve taken away their weapons before they could even fire a shot.