Clausewitz defined war as “politics by others means.” In other words, while politics is largely about negotiating or facilitating public outcomes, war strives to compel those outcomes.

The still-raging public relations battle between Apple and the FBI is an example of private political negotiations that failed (or were never attempted). Thus, both parties opted for public PR warfare designed to compel capitulation by the other side.

How the Feud Started

The FBI wanted Apple’s help to “unlock” an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists. Specifically, the FBI asked Apple for a “master key” to get past the phone’s encryption defenses. The FBI has said repeatedly that it is not looking for permanent access and that it is not looking to endanger Apple or the industry’s privacy policies. Instead, the FBI has said – as in the San Bernardino event – that access must be looked at and considered on a case-by-case basis, consistent with established processes for criminal warrants and records requests.

Apple, in turn, has argued that it really can’t do what the FBI requests without opening up its whole operating system for potential abuse from hackers – and thus endangering the protections that Apple customers now enjoy. Apple also worries that easy compliance on its part in this case will create a precedent for governing bodies – whether in the U.S. or internationally – to come back to Apple in the future for access or information. In this situation, Apple worries about pressure from governments – think China or Iran – that have less-than-stellar human rights records.

For more background, read this New York Times article.

No Winner in the Public Eye

For whatever reason, both Apple and the FBI thought that public pressure and public positioning were the best ways to support their case. Both, assumedly, saw their position as unassailable, and thus saw the value of taking their case public. Both thought that public and/or political pressure would validate and vindicate their respective positions.

Both were wrong.

Turning this legitimate public policy question into a take-no-prisoners public relations war between two powerful behemoths has served no one’s best interests. Apple has suffered by looking arrogant and too self-important to help with legitimate law enforcement needs. The FBI has suffered in looking like a bully that doesn’t understand or care about the complexities of privacy. And the general public has suffered by learning that things it holds sacrosanct – personal privacy, for one, and confidence that law enforcement is able to protect us, for another – are not as certain as once believed.

Takeaway Lessons When Waging a PR War

The two primary takeaway lessons in the Apple vs. FBI PR war are these:

  1. The bigger you are, the more important it is to demonstrate humility. No one likes bullies, and no one likes arrogance. The FBI and Apple, respectively, demonstrated both of these negative qualities. Perceived bullying and arrogance have damaged the reputation of both in the public square. The cost to repair damaged reputations will be far more that whatever is “won” in this battle.
  2. Once it goes public, you can’t pull it back in. It’s impossible (or at least very difficult) to negotiate when you are engaged in a public PR war. Both sides would have been much better served to find areas of agreement or compromise in private. Once public, positions became intractable and no “win-win” scenarios could be found.

The bottom line is this: Positive PR for your people, product, service or company is always beneficial. In contrast, a PR war often takes you out of the driver’s seat, leaves you beset by the vagaries of public opinion, and is rarely beneficial.

It is hard to “win” a tit-for-tat public relations war. Sure, if you are backed into a corner, you may not have another option. Otherwise, always look for creative ways to avoid these PR wars.