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Crisis Communication Lessons from Apple vs. the FBI

Apple is between a rock and a hard place. Following the San Bernadino terrorist attack in December, the FBI wants Apple to crack the encryption on one of the shooters’ phones. Apple says it’s a dangerous precedent, and Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote an open letter that quickly went viral.

Astonishingly clear and honest, Cook’s letter is a piece of writing that all communications – especially those of us who are professionals – can learn from, especially in a crisis. Here are three nuggets of word-y wisdom that we’ve plucked from the controversy.

Be clear

One glance at this case and it’s easy to tell how polarizing the topic is. The only way to properly communicate a complicated issue is through clear, concise and direct language. It can be tempting to unload your thoughts onto paper when you feel passionately about something – as, undoubtedly, Tim Cook and his team do about data encryption security – but bear in mind that your reputation is at stake. Apple’s letter, while lengthy at 1,100 words, utilized shorter sentence structure, the active voice, strategic page breaks and plain language.

Use inclusive language 

An easy way to get people on your side – or at least to see your perspective – is to use language that helps them identify with your brand. Use inclusive pronouns like “we,” “you” and “us,” and include words like “together” and “team.” Be sure to avoid jargon, as that is a quick way to alienate a portion of your audience. By ensuring that your public “feels the love,” you’re demonstrating your value and cementing yourself as part of your customers’ lives. Cook and his team at Apple did this by showcasing in clear language how Apple users’ personal data security could be threatened if they conceded to unlocking the phone in question.

Stick to your guns

Apple is unapologetically opposed to the FBI’s orders and they’re not hiding it. While empathetic to those who disagree (they stated that they “believe the FBI’s intentions are good”), they are staunchly taking a stand against what they feel is a dangerous precedent. There’s something to be said for a company that sticks to its guns – respectfully, of course – in the face of controversy.

While not everyone will agree with Apple’s resistance to assisting the FBI in its case against the San Bernadino terrorists, there’s no doubt that their argument inspired respect for the brand and its leadership, and cemented its position as the forerunners of consumer technology. There is much to learn from the composition, delivery and message of Tim Cook’s open letter.


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