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Is Apple's Denial To Unlock Shooter's iPhone Hurting Its Image?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You might say the case is one of privacy versus security - or in another sense, it's Apple versus the U.S. government. We're talking about Apple challenging a federal court order to help unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the shooters in San Bernardino, Calif. Some say Apple is taking a stand for privacy. The Department of Justice describes Apple's actions as a marketing move. Well, let's hear from someone who has dealt with moments like this. Michael W. Robinson is a corporate crisis communications adviser. He says for one thing, Apple has dug in for a long legal battle.

MICHAEL W. ROBINSON: It'll likely go up to the Supreme Court, I would suspect. I mean, if you look at what Apple is doing and who they've hired to help them, I think that indicates that they're preparing for an appeal. But it is a defining element of our time. And so I think this will be an issue that Congress will weigh in on. The executive branch clearly has weighed in on it. I think the judicial branch will weigh in on it.

GREENE: And Robinson also says there are not many companies that could risk going toe-to-toe with the federal government.

ROBINSON: You know, Apple is unique. Its products are revered. People believe them to be acting in society's best interest. If we were talking about a bank or an insurance company or an automobile manufacturer, they would not have the brand loyalty, the corporate reputation to withstand this kind of request from the government. This is a very legitimate request. Let's understand - this is a very legitimate request from the FBI which, indeed, is trying to find out if we are safe. For Apple, the real key going forward is that they cannot be the only people making this argument. If people view this as Apple defending its product, eventually Apple loses. If people view Apple as taking a principled stand on behalf of Americans in terms of protecting their privacy, they win.

GREENE: And looking like you are taking a stand for people has to be something that would help any company, regardless of the eventual outcome here.

ROBINSON: Well, that's absolutely right. And Apple's always been a genius at getting people to understand what they need before they really need it. Yesterday you saw Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, others begin to weigh in and say Apple's doing the right thing. We agree. But this is a debate that isn't going to end this week. Apple has an opportunity to help write the law, if you will, for certainly the next decade, if not number of decades. This is a very important debate for Americans, and in fact for the world, to be having right now.

GREENE: But if - Michael Robinson, if - with such a division of opinion here, I mean, is there a risk in Apple sort of fighting this court order and looking like they are not putting a priority on protecting Americans?

ROBINSON: There's a huge risk for Apple here. But that's why they have to make this an issue that's a broad-based coalition. They can't fight this alone. They can start it. And they have. And there are a lot of people who think they've done the right thing. But ultimately, this has to be much bigger than Apple, if you can imagine there is such a thing. This has to be as many voices in chorus as they can possibly gather.

GREENE: So that's the risk here. If they look like they're fighting this alone, things could go badly for the company, potentially.

ROBINSON: Well, if they look like they're fighting this alone, they'll look like they're protecting their product. And that's the issue. They can't look like they're defending a product. They have to look like they're defending a right.

GREENE: All right, Michael W. Robinson - he's managing director of the strategic communications firm ICR, and he works in crisis communications - talking to us about Apple. Mr. Robinson, thanks so much.

ROBINSON: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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