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Swisher versus Cook and Apple versus Facebook

Kara Swisher is a great journalist, with a no-bullshit approach to posing questions to the rich and powerful that’s been displayed throughout her career, most recently on her Pivot and Sway podcasts.

Last month she interviewed Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple. It was a meeting of two titans, both at the top of their game. Cook, who had to fill the shoes of the legendary Apple founder Steve Jobs, takes a less adversarial approach to engaging with the media than Jobs did. The first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Cook has a calm, soothing way of speaking, complete with a charming southern drawl.

Under Cook’s leadership, Apple has grown to a market cap of over $2 trillion (yes, with a “t”) and expanded into new product lines. Lots of prognosticators have called for Apple’s fall but its most recent quarter’s results blew the doors off. The company looks unstoppable, for now, at least.

Cook’s discussion with Swisher was a textbook example of how to manage an interview, where to engage clearly and forcefully yet without creating a negative narrative for your company. If you are concerned about reputational risk coming from a media interview, it’s a great one to study.

Good journalists don’t always pound the table or use ambush interviews to shape their stories. They are often more subtle. Swisher was respectful toward Cook but pushed hard to create a clear frame: Apple CEO attacks Facebook. She posed a series of questions premised on the idea that the two companies were in a pitched battle and that only one can come out on top. She tried to make it personal – Cook versus Zuckerberg.

That’s often what journalists do – they reduce complex issues to what they see as their core elements to make it easier for the audience to understand. But life, and business, is rarely so clear cut. That’s an enduring tension during interviews between CEOs and journalists. The relationship between Apple and Facebook is clearly fraught but it is complex – it doesn’t lend itself well to simplistic analysis.

Cook was well briefed. He knew what Swisher would ask and knew what his key messages should be. Apple has put consumer privacy front and centre in its corporate strategy, placing them in clear conflict with both Facebook and Google who monitor user behaviour across the Internet and can generate fiendishly accurate profiles of consumer wants and desires. From a marketing perspective, this is gold and the reason why Google and Facebook together account for 80 percent of Canada’s total online advertising. They are highly effective marketing channels.

But at what cost to privacy, autonomy and human agency? We are living in a world best described as dominated by surveillance capitalism.

Apple has picked the side of the consumer, at the expense of Google’s and Facebook’s advertising dominated business model. That’s a juicy story, one that plays directly to media’s simplistic style of coverage, addressing these complex, nuanced issues with a reductive ‘one company thinks this and the other thinks the opposite’ kind of approach.

Swisher pushes Cook on Apple’s commitment to privacy, alleging it’s a newcomer to the issue. Cook refutes this directly, noting that Apple has long argued for greater consumer privacy protection. “It’s not about being a brand attribute…for us, privacy is a basic human right,” Cook says at around the 10:00 mark.

They move on to discussing Apple’s new “App Tracking Transparency” feature, which Cook says is aimed at companies tracking users across other apps, surveilling you across the web 24/7. Swisher jumps on this, saying they are surveilling people using devices that Apple makes. Cook smoothly and calmly says, they are “using all technology.” He doesn’t give an inch on this.

Again, trying to establish the narrative of Apple versus Facebook, Swisher presses Cook on Apple’s focus on privacy. “Kara, every year we add privacy features…it’s not aimed at a company. It’s aimed at a principle, and the principle is that the individual should be in control over whether they are tracked or not” (at around 13:00).

Swisher, relentless as always, says “you’re in this fight with Facebook.” Cook doesn’t accept the question and instead says “what we’re doing Kara, is giving the user the choice of whether to be tracked or not.”

Then Swisher summarizes Facebook’s argument that Apple’s privacy policies will harm small business around the world by blocking surveillance which in turn, will undercut Facebook’s business model and strategic advantage. “You’re aiming at the heart of those businesses,” she says.

Cook rebuts this effectively. “First of all, I don’t really agree with that assertion. I think you can do digital advertising and make money from digital advertising without tracking people when they don’t know they are being tracked” (at around 14:40).

Cook knows that there is no strategic upside to Apple for getting into a public fight with Facebook at this stage. He wants to downplay the conflict, even if it is raging just out of public sight.

“Kara, I’m not focused on Facebook…if I’m asked who our biggest competitors are they would not be listed” he says at around 15:20.

She pushes him again about Facebook’s privacy issues. Cook demurs and says, “you know, I can only talk about the choices that Apple has made.”

Cook is a great example of how a business leader can navigate an interview with a good, strong journalist hell bent on establishing a clear, if reductive, narrative. Cook does this calmly, happily even. There is no antagonism in his voice. He conveys his messages clearly and avoids the trapdoors that Swisher set for him. The result was a good interview, full of substance but without the “Apple versus Facebook” framing that Swisher so clearly desired.

Swisher poses some other tough questions about the issues with Apple’s App store, Apple’s next device (rumoured to be focused on AR), the prospect of an Apple car and even how long Cook would stay in the CEO seat. It’s a good back and forth, worth listening to.

The takeaway lessons for leaders facing tough interviews are clear: don’t accept the journalist framing if you feel it is wrong or reductive, stick to your key messages and don’t take the bait with negative questions. We’ll be adding Cook’s answers to our “To Do” examples in Bonfire’s media training program.

Allan Gates

Allan Gates is the president of Bonfire.