Apple's Foxconn Transparency: Brilliant or Bad PR Move?

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From the way Apple has handled recent outrage over factory conditions at Foxconn, one thing is clear: Apple's a different company under CEO Tim Cook.

Foxconn, which manufactures products for Apple and several other American tech companies, has been in the spotlight ever since the New York Times ran a pair of reports on poor working conditions at the factories. But for anyone who follows the tech industry, the conditions at Foxconn are no surprise. They've been an issue for years, prompting the press to pay attention on a recurring basis.

A string of worker suicides in May 2010 got lots of press coverage, including from the New York Times. A year later, a watchdog group cited continued human rights abuses at Foxconn. And although ABC claims that its recent Foxconn tour was the first ever Apple-sanctioned visit, other American journalists have been to the facility before. Joel Johnson's account for Wired in February 2011 was particularly depressing.

This time around, the difference is twofold:

First, The Times went more in depth with its reporting than it ever had--and arguably more in depth than any newspaper--publishing a two-part investigative story. The size of the story, and the fact that it's the New York Times, played an instrumental role in the recent uproar.

But Apple's response has also been different. First, Cook wrote a long e-mail to all Apple employees, defending the company. “We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain,” he wrote. Inevitably, that letter leaked to the press, and parts of it got recycled in Apple's official statements to the media. Then, Apple invited ABC to take a first-hand look at Foxconn's facilities. After ABC ran its findings, Apple, Foxconn and the Fair Labor Association sent additional responses.

Image Credit: IDGNS Boston, A photo of the southern campus at Foxconn's Chengdu factory, provided by Hong Kong-based group SACOM

Cook Improves Apple PR?

This is a far cry from the way Apple handled Foxconn coverage with Steve Jobs at the helm. In previous years, Apple responded only with short statements to the press, leaving any elaboration to its yearly Supplier Responsibility reports.

That's not to say Apple or Foxconn took no action while Jobs was CEO. In 2010, Foxconn put up safety nets and raised wages. Apple, which worked with Foxconn on improving factory conditions, noted in a 2011 report that the efforts saved lives. To be fair, the extent of Apple's influence on Foxconn, before Cook took the helm, is not completely known.

The difference now is that Apple is being more vocal and more open about the situation. Maybe that's because of the gravitas of the Times' report, but maybe it's because Cook is doing things his own way. As John Gruber noted last week, Apple's one-on-one press previews of OS X Mountain Lion were also uncharacteristic of the company.

Apple Does the Right Thing, But With Consequences

But in the case of Foxconn, I'm not sure that the openness is working out in Apple's favor. By providing more fodder, Apple is keeping the issue alive in the press, with no tangible benefit to its image. The petitions and calls for a boycott continue. Meanwhile, little attention is being paid to the other companies that employ Foxconn, such as Dell, HP and Microsoft.

As a member of the press, I was never a fan of the wall of silence at Steve Jobs' Apple. But it's hard not to argue that it worked.

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