Apple laid down the gauntlet to the PC in its infamous 1984 commercial announcing its new Macintosh. Thirty years later, Apple now dominates Microsoft as world’s most valuable technology company. Apple’s almost religious adherence to branding has paid tremendous dividends (with that customer loyalty helping CEO Steve Jobs and his company slide past PR scandal after scandal).
As part of its hip, edgy brand, Jobs has taken to answering customers’ questions over rapid-fire email. It’s seen as yet another way that Jobs outclasses the erratic Steve Ballmer of Microsoft – whose spastic on-stage appearances are far more interesting than whatever Microsoft product he’s peddling at the time.
Recently, Jobs responded to a question about “conflict minerals” and whether Apple responsibly sources the minerals in its products. For companies not paying attention, conflict minerals are the next blood diamonds. There is an international movement afoot, led by activist groups in the UK and US, that is going to name and shame companies sourcing minerals primarily from the Democratic Republic of Congo – home to the world’s bloodiest ongoing conflict since World War II. A special report by a UN group of investigators took the extraordinary step of outing several US tech companies with links to the DRC. And even New York Times influential columnist Nicholas Kristof has moved on from Darfur to make conflict minerals and the DRC his new cause.
Perhaps Jobs is unaware of this movement, as the answer he gave a customer on this issue is not going to cut it:
“We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict few materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it’s a very difficult problem.”
In Jobs’ defense, he’s technically correct. There is no international certification for the sourcing of conflict minerals such as the Kimberly Process for blood diamonds. However, there are groups that can help Apple and other companies clean up their supply chain and practice proper CSR. Perhaps more importantly, Jobs could at least act like he cared more about the issue beyond calling it “difficult.” And then there is the strange use of the word “few” rather than “free.” Conflict-few may be a concept Jobs is pioneering but the global pressure campaign will not be centered on achieving “conflict-few” minerals – it will call for an outright ban on minerals from DRC and start linking specific companies to the ongoing bloodshed.
With his inadequate response to a very serious question, Jobs stumbled into a major international issue and Apple is now square in the sights of activist groups. As with any major global crisis, smart messaging on conflict minerals requires a concerted, ethical, and engaging PR effort to explain a company’s positions. Quick emails won’t suffice.