feeding my own misguided insanity

Critique of Media Coverage on BlackBerry's Share Price Free-fall

Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian maker of BlackBerry phones, is laying everything on the line in the hope that its latest device, the BlackBerry 10 smartphone, will win over consumers and pull the company out of a lossmaking slump that saw its share price tumble by almost 96% over the past two years.[1]

RIM has always been seen as the market leader and pioneer in the field of business communications, such as two-way pagers and email delivery with push technology. But a string of events have caused this visionary organization to fall from grace and miss vital opportunities to maintain its market share.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that led to RIM’s current situation, but an overview of recent events in addition some historical perspective may shed light on the dwindling market share. However, it is first important to understand the changing competitive landscape, which may have contributed to the company’s downfall.

RIM’s Rise and Fall – a Recap

RIM has always had its roots firmly planted within the corporate and government environments. These large organizations tended to choose BlackBerry handhelds because of their security, encryption features, push email technology and global coverage.

When the first BlackBerry handheld computer was introduced in 1998, there was little competition for a device that only had a six-line text display, could send and receive basic email and browse specially formatted webpages that offered news, weather and stock market data. At the time, RIM was Canada’s fastest-growing technology company and the following year it listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange, raised $250 million to further develop the BlackBerry technology and shortly thereafter released the BlackBerry 850 Wireless Handheld with the famous – if tiny – QWERTY keyboard.

Demand for the handheld exploded and some began referring to the device as a “Crackberry.”

In 2003, almost 4 years before Apple’s iPhone came into the picture, RIM released the smartphone version of the BlackBerry which supported push email, mobile telephone, text messaging, Internet faxing, Web browsing and other wireless information services. The following year the company celebrated its 20th anniversary and looked in awe at a subscriber base surpassing one million users.

During this time, various patent infringement charges were brought against RIM and in 2006 it finally agreed to pay $612.5 million to settle a dispute with an American patent company, NTP Inc. of Virginia. RIM’s stock soared to $50 per share on news of the settlement as well as its 10 million subscriber base. Just a year later, the company signed an agreement with Alcatel-Lucent to distribute BlackBerry smartphones in China. The news was electric and RIM became the most valuable company in Canada with a market capitalization of $68-billion and shares priced at $126.

That same year Apple introduced its first generation iPhone and managed to sell 6.1 million units in five consecutive quarters, briefly surpassing BlackBerry sales. On 16th June 2008 RIM stock was trading at $144.56 per share but lost a 10% on missed revenue forecasts and news of the new iPhone 3G. By the fourth quarter of 2008 Apple sold 6.9 million units and the RIM stock plummeted in value by 75%, trading as low as $38 but recovered to $82 the following month on good sales figures.

It was clear that the iPhone was a success and in an effort to compete with Apple’s newly-released iPad, RIM launched its own device named the PlayBook, but received mediocre reviews and sales of the unit were very poor. Adding insult to the injury, RIM had to recall 1,000 PlayBooks because of a software glitch that prevented users from setting up their tablets after purchase.

By July 2011 the stock price was again hovering at around $27 and in an attempt to appease shareholders, RIM let go of 2,000 jobs; more than 10 per cent of its workforce. The move did little to reassure investors who called for a revamp of the management structure.

Although the company has been operating for almost 30 years, the leadership has largely been shared between co-CEOs Jim Balsille & Mike Lazaridis. It wasn’t until January of this year and under tremendous pressure from institutional investors that both leaders decided to step down and hand the top job to Thorsten Heins, the chief operating officer (COO).

Apple is just one player in the mobile smartphone ecosystem and long before Google’s Android-powered devices hit the market, the industry sector was already starting to show signs of fragmentation.

The next section will attempt to analyze and critique selected media coverage of the mentioned events by discussing how techniques like agenda setting, priming and framing are used to sway public or investor opinion – leading to speculation on stock price manipulation through mass media.

Agenda Setting, Priming and Framing

Agenda setting refers to the idea that there is a strong correlation between the emphasis mass media place on certain issues and the importance attributed to these issues by audiences (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007).  Simply put, the more attention a particular issue receives by the media, the more important it seems to become to the audience.

Priming refers to ‘‘changes in the standards that people use to make political evaluations” (Kinder & Iyengar, 1989, p. 63) and occurs when news content suggests to news audiences that they should use specific issues as benchmarks for evaluating the performance of leaders and governments (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007)– in this case RIM’s corporate leadership and executive board. Priming could be thought of as an extension of agenda setting because both effects are based on memory-based models of information processing and “these models assume that people form attitudes based on the considerations that are most salient [ –] when they make decisions,” (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007).  In other words, the way people perceive or judge the subject in question is coupled with ‘‘the ease in which instances or associations could be brought to mind” (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973, p. 208).

Framing on the other hand “is based on the assumption that how an issue is characterized in news reports can have an influence on how it is understood by audiences” (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). The psychological origins of framing can be credited to Kahneman (2003), who showed that slight variations in the presentation of identical statements influenced people’s choices and opinions.

Among critical discourse analysis (CDA) practitioners, van Dijk is one of the most often referenced and quoted in critical studies of media discourse. In his News Analysis (1988), he integrated his discourse theory to the discourse of news in the press and applied his theory to news reports at national and international level.

Central to van Dijk’s analysis of news reports, however, is the analysis of macrostructure since it pertains to the thematic/topic structure of the news stories and their overall schemata. Themes and topics are realized in the headlines and lead paragraphs.

According to van Dijk (1988), the headlines “define the overall coherence or semantic unity of discourse, and also what information readers memorize best from a news report.”  He claims that the headline and the lead paragraph “express the most important information of the cognitive model of journalists, that is, how they see and define the news event. Unless readers have different knowledge and beliefs, they will generally adopt these subjective media definitions of what is important information about an event,” (van Dijk, 1988, p. 248).

These three models – framing, agenda setting and priming – and van Dijk’s approach to CDA, will form the basis of this critical analysis across the past 18 months of media coverage, during which time the share price has been eroded the most.

Analyzing the Media Coverage

On April 19, 2011 RIM released its PlayBook tablet device as a direct competitor to Apple’s iPad and Samsung’s GalaxyTab. Some analysts called it a superior tablet while others said the company rushed an incomplete product to market.

A CNET report went further with criticism and disambiguation about a statement that the company shipped “approximately” 500,000 PlayBooks since April 19, “that means it sold even less than that” because shipping only refers to delivery of the units to distributors and resellers (Erica Ogg, 2011).  Ogg framed the co-CEOs as having something to hide and not really telling the whole truth: “Balsillie speaks in the style where he answers a question by asking more questions and sometimes answering them himself,” and added that the co-CEOs “gave long-winded, meandering, and sometimes confusing answers as to why they wouldn’t do anything different in the way the company presented, launched, and raised expectations of its first go at a touchscreen tablet.”

A month later RIM was forced to recall 1,000 PlayBooks because of user experience issues. The memory of this recall lives on and is evident by the priming that is occurring in relation to the soon to be released BlackBerry 10. John Paczkowski wrote an article on AllThingsD titled: “Will BlackBerry 10 Be Another PlayBook?” Even before moving onto the body of the article, an unfamiliar reader would already be primed to expect that the new product would be as disastrous as the PlayBook. He goes on to say that any attempts by RIM to enter the market and take on the likes of the iPad or Android devices are “a tall order, and one that RIM seems ill-equipped to fill. Clearly, it didn’t manage it with PlayBook,” (Paczkowski, 2012). Reflecting on the ill-fated PlayBook is a way to characterize any future product releases by the company as a dismal failure and gives the whole BlackBerry product-line no hope of success.  It’s interesting to note that Paczkowski does have an ethics statement on his column which outlines the various codes of conduct that he adheres to – surprisingly, unbiased objectivity isn’t one of them. In one of his other articles, he uses “Lousy sales” to negatively frame the performance of the PlayBook and “ironic, considering that it was just a year ago that co-CEO Jim Balsillie was claiming pent-up interest in the PlayBook was ‘really overwhelming’,” to further remind the audience of broken promises (Paczkowski, 2011).

It is important to keep in mind that AllThingsD is owned by Dow Jones & Company Inc., an American publishing and financial information firm which in turn is owned by News Corporation. Coincidentally, Dow Jones also owns The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

There seems to be a clear difference between the styles of the writing in the WSJ and that of AllThingsD. Both report veraciously on RIM but AllThingsD is very much slanted against the company whereas the WSJ tends to err on the side of caution with reporting that is slightly more balanced and contains supporting material. “Odds that RIM can recapture the market dominance it once enjoyed in smartphones appear slim,” reported Will Connors in the WSJ. He did quote some statistics provided by a consulting firm to support his statement. “Consulting firm IDC recently estimated that RIM’s share of the global smartphone market stands at 4.7%, down from 9.5% at this time last year and from more than 50% in 2009,” (Connors, 2012b).

IDC is owned by International Data Group (IDG), a technology media, research, event management, and venture capital organization which on the surface appears to be an independent source of information and research but some quick fact checking reveals that News Corp. has had commercial ties with IDG since March 2007 when billionaire tech publisher Patrick McGovern (owner of IDG) “quietly teamed with Hearst Corp. and News Corp. to form a new venture in China,” (Keith, 2007); the WSJ statistics are starting to look much less credible and independent.

One could surmise that the Wall Street Journal is used to present to the audience a seemingly factual, unbiased and respectable report whereas AllThignsD is free to blow its op-ed bullhorn as loudly as it wants. Under the surface, however, both organizations have it in for RIM.

In contrast, the Washington Post presented the PlayBook recall with very little op-ed interjection and mainly stuck to the facts contained within RIM’s press release. “Research in Motion is recalling 1,000 PlayBook tablets sold at Staples stores after discovering that some of the tablets cannot properly install setup software, a company representative said,” (Tsukayama, 2011). The statement is informative, factual and even goes as far as to say that it “sounds like a fairly small recall, given that the PlayBook is believed to have sold about 45,000 units on its opening day,” suggesting a well-balanced report that puts the recall into perspective. In his final paragraph, Tsukayama writes “anyone who has been affected by the bug can contact RIM for assistance,” – a socially responsible message without speculation on the future of the company’s performance. The report certainly doesn’t suggest that anybody should liquidate their RIM stock portfolio nor does it brand the PlayBook as a failure.

In a more recent article related to company earnings, the Washington Post, or at least Tsukayama, once again reveals a sympathetic tone towards RIM. “RIM reported a loss of $235 million on revenue of $2.9 billion. It’s significantly less than during the same period last year, when the company reported $4.2 billion in revenue,” (Tsukayama, 2012).

That same day, the WSJ’s Paul Vigna reported that “RIM posted a second-quarter loss of $235 million, or 45 cents a share; a year ago, the company earned $329 million, or 63 cents a share,” bringing attention to previous performance.  He goes on to use additional historical comparisons and eventually suggests that RIM “has a long row to hoe if it’s going to climb back into the smartphone wars, and it knows it,” (Vigna, 2012). The overall tone of Vigna’s piece comes across as though RIM faces an excruciatingly long wait before it recovers, if ever, and does little to dig into recent sales data and layoffs that point in the opposite direction.

Just one day after Vigna’s report, Will Connors, also of the WSJ, continued his onslaught by presenting graphical data on the number of units shipped and that the “executives have not ruled out an outright sale of the company,” (Connors, 2012a). That same day, the WSJ’s Steven Russolillo opened his blog post titled “RIM Still Looks Like a $5 Stock to Some” with “all that RIM euphoria didn’t last very long,” that the bubble has “popped” and it is unlikely to have any further rises. “Of the 37 Wall Street analysts who have price targets on RIM shares, the mean is $8.69, according to Thomson Reuters. The lowest target on the Street is $4, while the highest is $40,” (Russolillo, 2012). If the mean stock price was estimated at $8.69 and the highest at $40, there was little evidence to support this average throughout a post that didn’t even allow the title to go above $5.

Three successive articles – two on the day following the media release – about the same financial statement could suggest a deliberate attempt at agenda setting that focuses on RIM’s short-term losses rather than the health of its existing subscriber base and increasing cash reserves.

On July of this year RIM was hit with another lawsuit, this time by Mformation Technologies Inc., who argued that RIM infringed patents it took out in 1999. RIM lost the case and was ordered to pay $147 million in damages. This was a critical time for RIM as its share price was already trading at historical lows. The BBC was quick to point out that “the case adds to RIM’s problems. Since the introduction of Apple’s iPhone in 2007, sales in the Canadian firm’s core Western market have been steadily declining” and that “the company is cutting 5,000 jobs – almost a third of its workforce,” (BBC, 2012). By adding the background surrounding the job cuts, the BBC is reiterating that the company is already under financial pressure and that this lawsuit further compounds its troubles. The BBC did refrain from any framing, however.

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) on the other hand, opened its first paragraph with “beleaguered BlackBerry maker” and reiterated that RIM “has been struggling with plummeting sales, a declining stock and other problems.” The report went on to suggest that “RIM has seen its business crumble as it increasingly loses market share.” Not satisfied with the above comments, the reporter Linda A. Johnson, took on the voice of consumers by saying that “today’s consumers want smartphones that go far beyond handling email and phone calls, with built-in cameras and other cool functions,” (Johnson, 2012); a comment that suggests she is unaware that BlackBerry devices have had those features for many years. Does Fairfax Media also have it in for RIM?

Similarly, Reuters’ Dan Levine, couldn’t resist using statements like “operating loss,” “deeper than expected” and “struggles to win back its reputation as an industry innovator,” (Levine, 2012). Levine covered the basic facts of the ruling but it was his interpretation of RIM’s past and future that created a negative sentiment.

Conclusion

The media is divided between the moderates, those publications that represent the company with a balanced coverage, and those that slant towards the negative. Generally speaking, however, the media paints a fairly grim picture of RIM and its BlackBerry business with very little business depth to support their claims.

One question kept popping into my mind during this analysis: are the reporters instructed to write in this way about a particular company or are they merely selected for the job because of their preexisting bias and style of writing?

It is true, Apple did come out a winner with the iPhone and iPad and it is hard to deny its market success. However, this analysis suggests that RIM’s stock price isn’t just a symptom of increasing competition and shrinking market share, but rather a combination of media speculation and mass syndication of near-identical propaganda to media organizations across the globe.

[Title photo credit: Stephan Geyer / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND]

Footnotes
  1. Research In Motion changed its company name to BlackBerry to fit with its brand of smartphones. The Canadian tech company announced the news Wednesday, 30th January, 2012 at the launch event for BlackBerry 10, the latest version of its mobile operating system. ^

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Critique of Media Coverage on BlackBerry's Share Price Free-fall, 8.5 out of 10 based on 2 ratings

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