Could the iPhone blow up in Apple's face?

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broken iphoneSeveral people in France, the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden reported the screen of their iPhone 3GS exploding or cracking (the image by the way is not a real photograph, it was fabricated for illustrative purposes only). Apparantly, one French iPhone user was hit by small pieces of glass in his face because the screen 'exploded' when taking a call. At first Apple only said they were "aware of the problem" but couldn't say anything more until the phones were sent back and inspected. After investigating the phones, they claimed that the damage was caused by an "external force", suggesting that the problem is not with the iPhone. In fact, by stating it like this, they more or less blame the customers for the damage. While this may or may not be true, a French consumer organisation and the European Union are now researching the cases and watching out for any future issues regarding the iPhone. Getting this kind of attention is hardly ever a good thing for an organisation. It looks as if Apple is trying to cover up any deficiencies of the iPhone. From a Public Relations point of view, trying to cover things up is usually a bad strategy, so let us examine what is going on here from a PR angle:

According to the BBC in this article, a UK resident received a refund for his daughter's malfunctioning phone, but only if he agreed to stay silent about the incident. My question here is "Why?" The only reason I can think of is that they are indeed trying to cover up a problem with the iPhone, and by doing so actually reinforce the opinion instead of silencing it. From the Public Relations perspective cover-ups have never been a wise strategy, but it is worse with today's online communication channels. If there really is a structural problem with the device, Apple will have to take action sooner or later, since it is only probable that there will be more cases like these.

Public Relations and the online community

Once again you can see the link between good Public Relations and the online communication channels: if there are going to be more cases, it is likely that they will show up in the online channels. And not only that, other people will start to express their opinions about the case online. Until now most reports have come through traditional media, but think about a blog post on this becoming a hit online with other people joining in with their experiences and stories. Often other - unrelated - complaints make their way into these message streams. And remember that these streams are global. Just imagine that someone makes a song about it and posts it on YouTube, as described here. The effects of something like that can last a long time. With proper Public Relations (paying attention to every relation with any member of the "public") this could perhaps be prevented. If a complaint like this is handled well, it might even prove beneficial to the organisation as someone could post their positive experiences online.

Apple is forced to deal with this, whether it is a technical problem or not. And currently I think they are dealing with it in the wrong way. Trying to silence dissatisfied customers is not a good strategy in today's connected world. Nor is denying that there is a problem. From a Public Relations perspective, they should at least express concern over what happened. Especially directly to the clients that experienced the problem. If done well, there is no need to try and shut them up. If done well, their customers might just as well promote Apple's service. Once more this is a demonstration of how true Public Relations starts with customer care. In the way Apple is currently handling this situation, they are creating dissatisfied customers. And with the possibilities online, each and every one of them could make this a global online PR nightmare. On the other hand, there is nothing like a loyal customer base using the internet to praise your organisation. This is better than anything a 'good old press release' can accomplish. Apple knows this, they have this loyal customer base. So it puzzles me why they would want to jeopardise this by not handling customer complaints in a better way.

What do you think?

Is Apple right in handling these cases as they do? After all, they might be incidents unrelated to the iPhone itself. Or should they have taken better care of the complaining clients? That way they might have prevented this issue from showing up online altogether. Share your opinion in the comments section below if you like.

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