Stella Low, one of the most capable communications executives I’ve ever met, just left Cisco to lead corporate communications and support diversity and social responsibility at Apple.
In contrast, Apple seems to have made a list of things not to do to customers, or as an employer, and rather than avoiding bad practices has set them as goals.
The reason for this is an excessive focus on margins and a lack of focus on customers whom the company appears to increasingly take for granted; a common problem with Apple’s lock-in business model.
That lock-in model was prevalent during the early years of the tech market. However, after it nearly killed IBM, it fell out of favor. Only Apple and Oracle still practice it at scale (it is inherently anti-competitive and can lead to anti-customer behavior).
Stella moved from EMC, which showcased the most customer-friendly offering I’ve ever seen with their old VCE group, to Dell, which has been aggressive in fighting misogyny and improving diversity. Cisco leads the market with its diversity and corporate responsibility efforts.
I point this out because, while Apple is very successful, this tendency to do bad things makes it a far more significant challenge than EMC, Dell, or Cisco for a communications manager. This is because the marketing and communications jobs in tech companies, which have no line authority, are often held accountable for the executives’ image problems.
Let’s talk about Apple this week. Then we’ll close with the product of the week, my favorite laptop of the year (so far), the HP Elite Folio.
The Problem With Tech Communications
With the noted exceptions above, tech companies tend to be run by males, placing women in staff jobs with little authority. This behavior is despite studies that indicate women generally are better managers.
Women tend to end up in support or staff executive jobs, just not line positions. Women also tend to be particularly good in communications positions. Often, communications departments in these male-dominated companies are predominantly staffed by women. As a result, these tech companies are often showpieces of the Dunning-Kruger effect, where engineers that likely can’t spell marketing present themselves as experts in it.
While marketing tends to focus on advertising, communications generally focuses on scaled interpersonal influence by working with reporters and analysts. Communications jobs place an excessive amount of responsibility on the firm’s image. The role of the communications professional, in addition to promoting a company’s mission and values, is to prevent reporters and analysts from saying bad things about the company at scale.
The image of a company can have a significant impact on the firm’s valuation and sales. People invest in companies they like and tend to avoid companies they don’t; and customers will tend to avoid firms that they don’t like as well, thanks to recent politics, which has created an impressive number of boycotts.
Top Communications executives like Low are experts at making artificial problems or misconceptions go away. Still, actual bad behavior is far more complicated because it is considerably more difficult and costly to spin.
The right fix has to start with correcting the behavior. Still, Apple’s near rabid focus on margins, to the near exclusion of all else, has resulted in increasing exposure to antitrust challenges, nasty stories about those working on Apple products, and a slow but pronounced erosion of the company’s image.
Even when Apple does something right, like refusing to create a back door in their products, they are made to look bad (this is something a top comm exec can fix). Granted, it isn’t evident that Apple truly stood up for its customers. This whole sequence of events now looks screwy.
Apple’s battle with Qualcomm was particularly problematic, given they appeared to try to bully Qualcomm to get unusually low prices for licenses, and may have manufactured evidence to support their now failed claim with the FTC.
In effect, Stella Low has gone from a series of jobs where the companies behaved like adults — and tended to be well regarded for their actions — to a firm that is more like an out-of-control rich child with massive authority and behavior problems.
Low’s job isn’t to fix the behavior; it is to fix the impression of that behavior. So she’ll have the responsibility to fix vast problems at Apple; but as I see it, she’ll lack the authority to fix the real cause of the problems: Apple’s behavior.
Heroes are needed when impossible tasks need to be accomplished, and fixing Apple’s image without fixing its bad behavior is, in my opinion, an impossible task.
For Stella Low to be successful, she’ll need to moderate Apple’s behavior and, generally, even CEOs often can’t do this. Stella does have the ability to step up to this challenge and remains one of the most well regarded and capable communications and marketing executives I’ve ever met (and I’ve met some great ones).
My first mentor was a CMO who taught me that the most critical skill for a marketing or communications executive was organizational politics. Stella’s success will depend more on her political skills than her communications prowess to change Apple’s lousy behavior.
I’d argue that Apple needs Low to be successful even more than Low needs to do well because, on its current path, Apple’s eventual outcome doesn’t look good. In a world where social justice appears to be increasing in importance, stories surrounding Apple’s employee abuse alone are doing the brand an incredible amount of damage.
For anyone that still believes that Apple can be more than an incredibly profitable company; but one you can also be proud of for how it treats its people and customers, Stella Low could be the critical remedy for what ails the firm.
The HP Elite Folio 2-in-1 Notebook PC
When HP first came out with its Folio design and sent me one, it quickly became my favorite laptop. This position was despite the fact it came in two colors that dropped out of popularity in the 1980s: brown and especially burgandy.
The reason it became my favorite was that it best addressed how I work and play. When I game, I use a high-powered workstation-class desktop computer that’s a custom build. But when I travel, I mostly live in Microsoft Office and read, or either stream or watch downloaded videos for entertainment.
One of the unique features of this design is a cantilevered screen which is great for movies when flying in coach; and when folded open makes for a lovely sizeable digital book reader. When on the road, I could leave my way too heavy backpack (I pack everything in it) in the hotel room and easily carry the laptop and charger.
I need to be in constant contact, and long battery life when traveling is more important than performance. Granted, I also like something that looks good, and I struggled with the first-generation product’s colors. Other issues with the first edition were that battery life wasn’t as long as I would have liked, and the way the pen was mounted was ugly (in a bit of a loop that caused the pen to catch on things).
Well, this second-generation HP Elite Folio addressed the problems I had with the first edition and did even more:
- It is black, and uses vegan leather (manufactured material that looks and feels like leather but doesn’t require a cow death to create);
- battery life jumps impressively to 20 hours based on use (25 for video);
- there’s a 5G option (though the standard 4G high-speed LTE worked fine on the one they sent me);
- it has a pen garage that better protects and charges the pen; and
- you can get it with an optional 1,000 nit outdoor viewable screen (which sadly wasn’t ready when they shipped me mine).
Oh, and it has Wi-Fi 6, which I’ve deployed at home and swear by due to its higher reliability, security, and bandwidth. It uses the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon PC solution, and it is incredible how much that platform has improved as I had no performance issues at all. With this current version, I can even leave the small charger behind.
Add to that: it looks good, I don’t feel wrong about dead cows (ok, I still eat meat, but I’m cutting way back), and I’m now unlikely to lose the pen although it’s doubtful I’ll use it because my handwriting truly sucks.
Thankfully this new Folio has one of the best keyboards HP has ever made. The HP Elite Folio is again my favorite notebook for becoming even more awesome than it was last year, and it is also my product of the week. Awesome may be an understatement.