Why We’re Still Talking about that Apple Customer Letter

Last Tuesday, Tim Cook’s letter to Apple customers was hard to miss. The simple message, packaged concisely in the form of a personal letter to all Apple customers, served to explain the company’s response to a demand from the U.S. government to help the FBI hack an iPhone.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of this debacle, because I’m by no means an expert on Apple products (I have a mini panic attack every time my iPhone nudges me for an update). I’m still wrapping my head around the All Writs Act of 1789, and the story is in a state of constant flux as it moves quickly and we all try to keep up (Apple already issued answers to a slew of customer questions).

But I do want to talk about the conversation the act of communication created. The way Apple brought everyone to the table for a serious sit-down. The language and tone Cook used to reach out and encourage discussion. The way the Internet grabbed the baton from Cook and continued the dialogue — sparking passionate debate noise that pushed the powerful players from the sidelines into the uncomfortable fray. Let’s start there.

The letter itself does a few big things:

It calls for a serious, yet all-inclusive pause to digest a message.

The dated header. The clearly addressed headline, “A Message to Our Customers.” The purposeful whitespace. The sign-off from Cook himself. The carefully crafted paragraphs work to explain the situation while always staying grounded in efforts to speak directly to customers. All of these detailed efforts grab hold of and keep the attention of the content-buried, always-multitasking, iPhone-grasping person of 2016. It politely screams, “Hey, this was written for you!”

The message is concise, directed, and personalized, and it doesn’t make any assumptions about what the reader may or may not understand about the issue at hand. There’s background information, there’s an explanation of why the heck encryption is so important, and there’s no missing the point that Apple directly opposes the government’s order, and it wants everyone to know why and what it plan to do about it. There’s no need to read between the lines, because Cook knows his audiences and he’s ready to lay it all out on the table for them.

It encourages and empowers reactions from all audience members.

The Apple customer letter quite suddenly sparked a conversation, which was Cook’s intention all along. He wrote, “This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake.” The Internet was quick to grab the reins and move the conversation forward.

What struck me as I dove into the dozens of articles surrounding the issue was the depth and diversity of participation. Articles from well-known publications like Fast Company included tweets in their reporting from Twitter users just like me. Everyday Apple users were able to influence the conversation because they were emboldened by the letter and they had something to say, and the rest of the Internet was willing to listen.

Sure, the tech world waited anxiously for the Googles and the Microsofts to come forward and position themselves in the conversation, but I believe it was the mass of lesser-known contributors who pushed them to expedite the process. While some statements from tech leaders were less bold than others, they were statements nonetheless. Fast Company’s Harry McCracken wrote, “And once one CEO of a large company that people depend on to protect their data speaks on the record, it’s tough for others to pretend that the conversation isn’t happening.”

The Apple customer letter’s legacy will continue to grow and morph into something that leaves a lasting mark on 2016. On Monday, less than a week since its debut, Cook responded to the letter’s reactions gathered thus far, “…I’ve received messages from thousands of people in all 50 states, and the overwhelming majority are writing to voice their strong support” (source). Cook’s letter, a simple yet strategic act of corporate communications, was successful because it positioned itself firmly, spoke to a targeted audience, and encouraged participation and action.

Originally published at calypsocom.com on February 24, 2016.

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