In 2007, Apple launched the first iPhone, which came in two varieties: a 4G version and an 8G version, priced at $499 and $599 respectively.
Two months later, Apple took the 4G model off the market—and dropped the price of the 8G model by $200.
Early adopters were, understandably, pretty upset. They’d taken a chance on this new product, and handed over a good chunk of hard-earned cash to Steve Jobs and his company.
Now, the mass market was being offered the better phone—and for $200 less.
The uproar got so loud that Jobs had to address the issue. So the great master of hype, inventor of the “reality distortion field,” took accountability. He posted an open letter to all iPhone customers the very next day.
You can view the full text of the letter here.
While every apology will differ based on the nuances of the situation, there are some powerful principles at play in Jobs’ communication that we could all learn from.
Here’s our blow-by-blow deconstruction of the letter.
He draws readers in.
The first words out of his mouth aren’t to say he’s sorry, or to admit fault. Master of suspense that he is, Steve Jobs knew it was better to leverage the tension to his advantage. He opens as follows:
“I have received hundreds of emails from iPhone customers who are upset about Apple dropping the price of iPhone by $200 two months after it went on sale. After reading every one of these emails, I have some observations and conclusions.”
By pointing out that he’s read “every” email, he establishes credibility with his reader. He’s not brushing off their concerns, he’s literally consumed every word of their discontent. From there, he promises “observations and conclusions”—provoking curiosity and compelling readers onward.
He explains himself.
Next, Jobs does something potentially counterintuitive—he digs his heels in. Rather than apologize for the price drop, he explains why dropping the price is a strategic move that is, ultimately, best for Apple and its audience.
“iPhone is a breakthrough product, and we have the chance to ‘go for it’ this holiday season. It benefits both Apple and every iPhone user to get as many new customers as possible in the iPhone ‘tent’.”
The key here is candor. Rather than sidestep the issue of Apple’s business goals, he confronts it squarely and, as a reader, you feel a sense of respect for someone willing to be so straightforward.
He offers context.
People who are upset about the price drop are thinking of how the change affects them personally—not about the technology landscape as a whole. By helping readers see the bigger picture, Steve Jobs aides them in breaking out of their own self-enclosed viewpoint:
If you always wait for the next price cut or to buy the new improved model, you’ll never buy any technology product because there is always something better and less expensive on the horizon.
This insight has a softening effect; anyone living in the modern world can relate to its truth—especially early adopters.
He admits he could improve.
As Bill Bernbach said, a small admission gains a large acceptance. After standing his ground and reframing the issue, Jobs at last concedes on what he views is the salient point: that he could and should improve how early adopters are treated by Apple:
“…we need to do a better job taking care of our early iPhone customers as we aggressively go after new ones with a lower price.”
The timing is perfect; at this point he’s created enough tension that this moment creates a great sense of relief in readers and makes himself look like a hero.
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He announces action.
Jobs then literally puts his money where his mouth is, offering all iPhone customers a $100 store credit toward Apple products. Ultimately, actions speak louder than words—all the rhetoric in the world can’t replace a truly restorative gesture.
He ends on a high note.
Jobs knows the power of a strong finish, so he goes out with a bang. He lifts his line of sight from the minutiae of the moment to the bigger values that Apple stands for—the change they’re trying to make in the world:
“We want to do the right thing for our valued iPhone customers. We apologize for disappointing some of you, and we are doing our best to live up to your high expectations of Apple.”
With these words, he creates an image of a guy who’s simply trying to do his best in a difficult job. It makes him a more sympathetic character and persuades you that, ultimately, he’s on your side.
Steve Jobs is a figure with a complicated legacy. But in technology and PR, he changed the game forever, and looking back on his actions—even his missteps—can offer valuable lessons.
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