Steve Jobs: All Too Human

June 21, 2009 at 5:41 pm 5 comments

steve-jobsSteve Jobs has received a liver transplant. The news has broken two months after the operation, accompanied by a familiar line from Apple: “Steve continues to look forward to returning to Apple at the end of June and there is nothing further to say.”

Health is a deeply personal matter. A heightened awareness of mortality is often painful and frightening. We can only imagine what Steve Jobs and his loved ones are going through with his 2004 cancer diagnosis, subsequent treatments, and resultant global coverage. There is one catch: Steve Jobs’ wellbeing is entwined with that of Apple, Inc., current market value $124 billion.

Much has been said about the secrecy and clumsiness regarding Apple reports on Mr. Jobs’ health. The delayed liver transplant announcement is the latest example. Maybe we didn’t need tweets from the operating room, but after the whispers, fake death notices and rollercoaster stock prices, Apple and Mr. Jobs know that lack of candor hammers the company’s shares and reputation.

An unclear plan of succession is Apple’s true weakness. Steve Jobs should look to his investment portfolio for a cautionary tale; with The Walt Disney Company’s purchase of Pixar, he became Disney’s top stockholder. Walt Disney was a mythic figure–company founder, entertainment pioneer, expert in the American zeitgeist from the Roaring Twenties to the Swinging Sixties. After his death in 1966, Disney, the corporation, spent two decades in the wilderness.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins warns of the “genius with a thousand helpers” model, companies built around a towering CEO supported by good soldiers rather than an executive team designed for succession. Remove the genius, and you have Disney of the mid-Sixties. Or Apple today, as the markets fear.

Steve Jobs and Apple must allay that fear with a new commitment to public relations. As we have seen, their ongoing reticence protects neither Mr. Jobs’ privacy nor Apple’s stock price. An article in the Los Angeles Times explores Mr. Jobs moving to an advisory role and elevating COO Tim Cook to CEO. Even a declaration that the well-regarded Mr. Cook is heir apparent with a timetable for handing over leadership would be a powerful, positive step.

With his triumphant return to the helm in 1997, Steve Jobs pulled Apple from the brink. Unfortunately, he risks sending it back there if he does not remedy his public relations disconnect.

POSTSCRIPT #1: The New York Times’ article on Apple’s culture of secrecy, stemming from protecting products in development. I have seen this syndrome throughout my career: companies extending a logical shielding of their R&D and M&A strategies to an illogical silence on all matters. It undermines public trust and wounds the brand.

POSTSCRIPT #2: An opinion piece on whether Mr. Jobs received preferential treatment with his transplant, both in terms of wait time and the decision to give an organ to a cancer patient. Jobs/Apple’s weak PR position fans such speculation.


Entry filed under: Crisis Communications, Leadership, Public Relations. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

PR, Stat! Article in PRNews: United We Stand

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dan  |  June 23, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    I was listening to this past Sunday’s This Week in Tech podcast, and the group, feature tech journalists Leo LaPorte, John C Dvork and Patrick Norton, were speculating that the “inside source” was Apple itself in an attempt to minimize any possible damage done by the story. Their train of thought goes that the story was released after the markets were closed on Friday, that it was after the release of the iPhone 3G-S (which had its launch date moved forward) ,and that it was after Jobs had made a good recovery. Even still, knowing that the CEO, face, and savior of the company had just had a major operation like this is something that needs to be made known.


  • 2. jasonkarpf  |  June 23, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Could be, given the sequence of events as you mention. Apple is a magnificent brand with a history to match. It risks much if it carries on in this manner. It doesn’t look like Steve Jobs has surrounded himself with people to give him unvarnished PR counsel.

  • 3. JamesStrock  |  June 27, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Terrific post, Jason, raising key issues. I wonder if we should think more about how the Information Age relates to these issues. Mr. Jobs has at least as much influence on others as say, Governor Mark Sanford. People may disagree about how much value his contribution represents–but, surely, those affected should be left with the discretion to decide. Secrecy is just not an option any more……

    • 4. jasonkarpf  |  June 27, 2009 at 9:41 pm

      The old adage that the cover-up is worse than the deed has never been more true. Concealment is futile and resented. Steve Jobs and Mark Sanford are both facing greater difficulties thanks to the unchecked reflex to block information.

  • 5. Steve Jobs: All Too Human…Again «  |  January 18, 2011 at 10:27 am

    […] leave from Apple for health reasons harkens to his 2009 leave and the similar PR issues it created. Click here to read my post from that time, “Steve Jobs: All Too […]


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