How Apple Employees View the Media

“The smarter the journalists are, the better off society is. For to a degree, people read the press to inform themselves-and the better the teacher, the better the student body. ”

--Warren Buffett

Apple employees view most of the media with a wry mixture of disdain and respect. Various publications are graded, so to speak, on various factors. In the end, for most Apple employees, the only way to find out what's happening inside their own company is to listen to the right media channels. But which ones?

Apple employees, in general, are kept in the dark about planned new products. Even the sales force that will have to sell the product. Just like a military operation, the only people inside Apple who know about a forthcoming new product are those with a "need to know." And that standard is strict.

When I worked for Apple, I had a badge that designated me as residing outside the area. (I live near Denver.) Apple has many hundreds of employees who live in cities all over the U.S. Some are support engineers, some are sales people, and some are senior people who have the luxury of commuting to Cupertino but living with their families in a different city. (Starting in 2004, Apple started the process of putting a stop to that. It's expensive.)

As a result, my badge was programmed to let me into campus buildings from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm only, recognizing that as an occasional visitor to Cupertino, I didn't need 24 hour access to any building -- since I had no assigned office.

The restriction went even further. There was one building my badge wouldn't get me into at all: the hardware development building (#2). So you can see how badges, and thus information, are both logically and physically compartmentalized.

It's not surprising then that most Apple employees, even very senior ones, know nothing about new products in the works until the day Mr. Jobs makes the announcement. That means that if Apple employees want to know what's really going on, they have to scour the Internet -- something there's typically very little time for. They need serious leverage.

The Different Kinds of Publications

Very quickly, Apple employees size up those websites and blogs written by young fans. One might, euphemistically, refer to those as run by a fellow who lives in his mom's basement. With no industry experience, the operators of these sites tend to dwell on sarcasm, arrogance, one-upmanship, ad hominem arguments, Ballmer baiting, and fanboy craziness. They have nothing to offer Apple employees and are dismissed.

The more serious business publications, like the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek seldom publish investigative leaks. (Unless it's a controlled Leak.) There's more credibility to be gained by analyzing Apple's business practices as a service to investors than to be constantly jerked around by the rumor mill. Journalists who work for such highbrow operations often work long hours on financial investigations or other articles in their pipeline. As a result, they don't have the perspective required to pass judgment on the bits and pieces of info that swirl around Apple 24 x 7.

Rumor sites have had a rough time thanks to Apple's legal department.  When I worked for Apple, I treated these rumor sites as fun diversions, especially for individual product rumors. I kept the content in the back of my head, but mostly dismissed isolated reports.  Without fail, whenever I met a customer, the first thing they would ask me was, "What do you think about that rumor at such-and-such publication?"  I'd just smile and shrug. "It's a rumor."

Apple employees looking for solid information about their own company look to the high end, respectable Mac-related Websites where the journalists spend the entire day, every day, immersed in Apple's doings. I like to think that The Mac Observer is one of those, but one could also add publications like Macworld, ars technica and a few others to the list. AppleInsider often provides a combination of deep technical material and insights into Apple's agenda for using those technologies. These are publications that don't put an author through a week-long editing and proofing cycle. The authors can use their expertise to get into "print" on the Web very quickly and weigh in based on enormous experience levels.

Credentials and editorial philosophy also play a role in sizing up an Apple Website. Those journalists who are constantly involved in the highest professional level are recognized as valuable.  For example, those who come to mind teach sessions at Macworld Conference & Expo, have published books, are typically found on podcast or radio interview shows, and are often sought out as speakers at various events.  These journalists meet with a lot of different people with different viewpoints and have a broader perspective.  Also, those who have previously worked in the industry as technical professionals and have advanced degrees are more readily recognized by Apple employees as voices with temper, experience and judgment.

Finally, some publications are unabashedly pro Apple, no matter what Apple says or does.  Others will take Apple on and vigorously discuss controversial Apple decisions. While Apple managers, if they say anything at all to their staff will gently push them towards publications that are unequivocally pro Apple 100% of the time, it is the managers who recognize that serious discussion of Apple's occasional mistakes is valuable. Unfortunately, the second group, given Apple's notorious thin skin, sometimes gets shorted when it comes to advertising, notices, event invites, press passes and so on.  Apple's marketing communications group has its own, special "friends" list.

It's a double edged sword: the publication that serves its readers, including general Apple employees, best is not always the one that serves mother Apple's PR mission.

My Own Experiences

When I was at Apple, I'd sometimes contact various Mac journalists on back channels (private e-mail) to ask them about their opinion. I knew that they had a broad set of inputs, a good "B.S. meter" and industry experience to pass judgment on various issues, perhaps related to unannounced products. There's a fraternity there amongst middle level Apple, ex-Apple, and Apple journalists that thrives on back channels. That group "sanity meter" goes a long way towards providing a sensible view about many things that an Apple employee just can't get (or dare not seek) internal to the company.

Apple can go too far, sometimes, in keeping vital information away from its own employees. I recall that at Supercomputing 2003 in Phoenix, I was about the business of selling one of my customers on the idea of Apple's Xserves as modest sized compute clusters. This was when I was a Federal Account Executive at Apple.

I had a good relationship with my customers at one of the major U.S. National Laboratories, and we were all in Phoenix, Apple and the customers, with booths, meeting and talking and working to develop various technologies, for example, Infiniband.

I found a local hotel where I, my boss, some other technical Apple people from our booth and the product manager for the Xserve could sit quietly and brief my customer on the roadmap for the Xserve. However, when it came time for the briefing, all of the technical and sales people, including me, were told we could not attend. Only the Product Manager (and my boss) could brief my customer.

Needless to say, I was hopping mad. I had the ultimate responsibility to sell Apple products to this customer and I was the owner of the relationship. Yet Apple felt that it wasn't important for a senior sales exec to have information about the product he was chartered to sell down the road. It also made the sales team look very bad, and I told my boss that of it ever happened again, I would not only walk out of the briefing, I'd keep on walking. Fortunately, that kind of situation was avoided in the future.

Of course, it wasn't as if I hadn't had a career in keeping secrets. Before I worked for Apple, I worked for Lockheed Martin Astronautics where I had security clearances so far above Top Secret that the names of the clearances themselves were classified. The problem wasn't my own judgment and loyalty. The problem, ultimately, was that Mr. Jobs didn't trust his own sales force, and that translated into a "need to know" policy that was onerous and counter-productive. It also damaged morale.

That can have the negative effect of driving an Apple employee even more towards the Mac Web. They can become alienated from their own company. That can create a certain tense, euphoric feeling of both working for Apple and simultaneously feeling like an outsider. It's perhaps the most characteristic feeling of an Apple employee who interfaces with customers -- in my experience.

Sizing it Up

Apple employees work long hours. Most know very little about what's going on in other parts of their own company as a result of internal communications. They can't leak information about new products because they're kept in the dark.

Yet, it is possible to develop the art of reading just the right publications when in, say, the airport lounge or at home, to ge a feel for what's happening at Apple. Most Apple fan sites are dismissed, but a smattering of publications have some credibility, thanks to the professionalism and experience of the staff. One could say that Apple employees are neither as knowledgeable about their own company as some customers fantasize nor as ignorant of their own company as some senior Apple execs would like to believe.