What a free iPad bought Apple


Philip Elmer-DeWitt is a senior editor at Fortune.

How to turn bad publicity into a public relations coup for less than $500

Michael Finney, a consumer reporter for KGO-TV, the local ABC affiliate in San Francisco, thought he had a story that would give Apple (aapl) and its "red hot iPad" a big black eye.

The station had received a call from Diane Campbell, a disabled woman on a fixed income, who had saved $600 to buy her first computer -- an iPad -- only to be told by a clerk at Apple's Palo Alto store that the company didn't take cash (a policy Apple had adopted to prevent black-market resellers from buying more than two).

Finney went to town. He brought a camera crew to Campbell's house, filmed her playing her guitar, and got a killer quote: "Mr. Jobs, give a sister a break. I'm not going to go sell my iPad."

He Tweeted the story and posted links on his blog to follow-up pieces in the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, ZDNet, and the Huffington Post. There was even a Facebook page: "Apple, Let Diane Campbell buy an iPad with Cash, Now!"

But Apple knows a thing or two about managing the press. This one was easy. The company reversed its no-cash rule (provided customers open an Apple account at the point of purchase), hand-delivered a free iPad to Dianne Campbell, and gave Michael Finney an even better story, one that made him the crusading reporter who can single-handedly change corporate policy.

Result: The kind of publicity money can't buy. See the video here and below the fold.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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