Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Mishandling Steve Jobs’ Health News: What NOT to do in PR

The blog Gizmodo shocked the business world on Dec. 30, 2008 when they announced that the popular Apple Computer conference, Macworld would not include a keynote address by Apple founder/CEO Steve Jobs this year, because of health reasons. In fact, rather than the reason previously given by the Apple Corp., that Macworld was “no longer needed” by the company to unveil its products, a “reliable source” told the popular blog that Job, who has suffered from pancreatic cancer, was in “rapidly declining” health:
Apple is choosing to remove the hype factor strategically vs letting the hype destroy apple when the inevitable news comes later this spring. This strategic loss will be less of a bang with investors. This is why Macworld is a no-go anymore. No more Steve means no more hype. Saying they are no longer needing [Macworld] is the cover designed by the worldwide "loyalty" department.

The blog entry set off a firestorm of speculation on the Internet that his cancer, for which he was treated in 2003, had returned. Many believed the blog and questioned the company’s truthfulness about Jobs, who, unlike other CEOs, is seen as intimately connected with the past and future success of Apple.

However, CNBC reporter Jim Goldman reported on his blog that Gizmodo had gotten it all wrong (based on its sources - most likely the Apple PR department) and that the health scare was an exaggeration. It was “not health concerns” that caused Apple and Jobs to pull out of the Macworld event.

CNBC rather embarrassingly had to walk back it’s pooh-poohing of Gizmodo’s reporting when, on the following week, it was revealed by Jobs and the Apple board that he indeed was suffering from a health aliment that was robbing his body of proteins.

A serious condition, though perhaps not deadly.

Still, the cult of secrecy at Apple led to a flurry of rumors and damaged the company’s stock price.

The company has, in the past, sought to keep Jobs’ health problems a secret. His surgery to deal with his cancer in the fall of 2003 only leaked out in April, 2004, causing shockwaves at the company.

An April, 2008 comment by Apple PR person Katie Cotton that his gaunt appearance was due to a “common bug” was also later refuted.

That strained credulity, but the denials this time were no less strong, and that’s a huge problem for Apple.

Gizmodo noted that “While Steve Jobs' health is nobody's business—not the press, not investors, not the public—we believe that there's a line between saying "no-comment" and plainly misleading—once again—the public.”

They are correct. And kudos for this “New Media” source getting it (mostly) correct while media giant CNBC got it wrong.

But the real lesson here is the (mis)application of PR to a health or business crisis.

In public relations, truth-telling is absolutely necessary. Those in the profession who lie only perpetuate negative stereotypes about what we’re supposed to be all about: TRUTHFUL ADVOCACY OF OUR CLIENTS’ INTERESTS.

PR hackery, in which lying is seen as a way to cover up and delay unpleasant truths, is grossly unethical, but more than that, it is likely to backfire every single time.

Apple is “Exhibit A” in this regard.

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