A fresh start, or rotten to the core…

… Is there substance to Apple's new approach to China or is it PR Spin?

Apple visit China

When it comes to addressing a company crisis there are all kinds of nuances to consider when deciding on a PR strategy. Multiple factors come into play, not least legal considerations and impact on share price (if the company is listed).

But to put things in their most simple terms - and this is often how the outside world sees things - there really are two approaches. Batten down the hatches and weather the storm, or get out and take on the issue head-first. Neither is right or wrong and are entirely dependent on the circumstances and mitigating factors.

For some years it seems as though Apple - the world's most valuable corporation - has adopted the former of these two strategies when addressing fierce criticism over the treatment of workers in its Chinese factories. Accusations that Apple and its partners in China - in particular Foxconn - have repeatedly broken human rights and employment law have been made on numerous occasions.

In February 2011 Foxconn opened the doors of its Shenzhen plant to Joel Johnson of Wired. The decision to let a journalist tour the plant was part of a PR attempt to counteract the widespread negative PR caused by a highly-alarming spate of suicides (11 in total) at the facility. The resulting article was certainly not a PR puff-piece and presented a very balanced account of what Johnson saw in Shenzhen - the good, the bad and the ugly.

However, this week saw Apple dramatically step-up its attempts to address the ongoing issue of its operations in China. In an unprecedented move, Apple CEO Tim Cook visited China (something Steve Jobs never did) and went to the Zhengzhou Technology Park, where a staggering  120,000 people are employed. Cook announced that Apple will work with Foxconn to improve conditions, the measures include:

-          Hiring tens of thousands of new workers

-          Clamping down on illegal overtime

-          Improving safety protocols

-          Upgrading worker housing

Cook's visit coincided with the publication of a damning report published by the Fair Labor Association which amongst other issues found that, more than 43% of workers reported experiencing or witnessing an accident at the three plants audited and also, health and safety breaches included blocked exits, lack of or faulty personal protective equipment and missing permits.

The Fair Labor Association Report has received widespread coverage in national press today. But by arranging Cook's visit to China to co-ordinate with the publication of the report, means that many of the articles seem more balanced and nearly all lead with the photos of Cook - in a yellow jacket - touring the plants and 'getting his hands dirty'. As the old adage goes 'a picture paints a thousand words' and the site of the CEO on the shop floor is infinitely more beneficial for Apple than pictures of 'battery farm-style factories' and over-burdened workers.

So is this a shift in strategy for Apple and more importantly has it worked… time will tell. We welcome your thoughts and comments on this subject.


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