Unlike others enlarged in death beyond what they were in life, Steve Jobs deserves all the accolades.
Yes, he really was a visionary, marketing genius, and the greatest business leader of our time.
But in one specific area of business performance, Jobs record was much more inconsistent, debateable and even schizophrenic: the practice of public relations.
On the one hand, Jobs’ mastery of product publicity and promotion stood in a class by itself -- unmatched by any other business marketer. But on the other, the Apple king’s legendary penchant for secrecy and holding information close – particularly relative to his own health -- resulted in an often frosty relationship with the media, frequently characterized by the kind of double speak and obfuscation that would have made the Kremlin crow.
Here's how it breaks down:
As a dispenser of product publicity, Steve Jobs was the best.
No other company or CEO in history could command the attention that Jobs and Apple did when introducing a new product. Indeed, most companies announcing new products have to beg journalists to cover or even arrange pre-introduction “exclusives” with favored reporters to ensure that somebody at least will report on their new market entry.
Apple product introductions – from MacBook to iPhone, from iPod to iPpad – were “happenings.” Packing the hall with Apple employees and supporters, the crowds cheered the CEO’s every word, and the media took notice every time.
Even when Apple announced “interim product enhancements,” such as this week’s introduction of the iPhone 4S by Jobs’ successor Tim Cook, satellite media trucks obediently flocked to Cupertino to beam the news around the world.
Steve Jobs created a product publicity nirvana for his company.
So, too, when faced with product crisis, Steve Jobs excelled.
In the fall of 2007, when Apple reduced the price of its iPhone by $200 after only two months on the market, the company’s loyalists who snapped up the phone at inception screamed bloody murder.
It took Steve Jobs exactly one day to admit the error of his ways, apologize in an open letter to early purchasers, and announce that anyone who bought the iPhone early would receive a $100 discount on any future Apple purchase.
The founder’s instant “iPology” was hailed throughout the world, Apple once again basked in the glow of positive publicity, and Steve Jobs, in the best spirit of positive public relations, had turned lemons into lemonade.
Compare Jobs’ seamless crisis response to the fumferring apology by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings this past August, when customers left in droves after the company suddenly, stupidly raised its rates and split its services. Netflix stock has suffered a 40% decline since its CEO’s ham-handed attempt to save the day.
The point: Steve Jobs had an unrivalled “feel” for customer relations.
Where Jobs and Apple fell down in terms of public relations, were in the areas of “openness” and “disclosure.”
Under Jobs, Apple was among the most closed-mouthed companies, providing information on what it wanted, when it wanted, with little regard for the public’s or investors’ “need-to-know.” This was particularly the case with the CEO’s health.
It was Jobs, himself, who famously told the world about his pancreatic cancer in a commencement address at Stanford University in 2005. In that riveting speech, the Apple founder talked frankly about facing death and how he was now “fine” as a result of surgery.
And thereafter, Apple went “dark” in terms of its CEO’s health. The company steadfastly refused to provide updates, respond to rumors, or update the public on Jobs’ health.
Why, you may ask – as Jobs did – should the health of an individual be anyone else’s business? The answer, of course, was that because Steve Jobs was so critical to his public company, the state of his health was “material” information that shareholders had to have to make intelligent decisions about buying, selling or holding Apple stock.
In the summer of 2008, for example, when rumors circulated on the net that Jobs was dying, Apple fudged the truth about its CEO’s condition. In one fabled “off-the-record” interview with The New York Times, Jobs, himself, denied his cancer had returned and excoriated a reporter for raising the issue.
In the winter of 2010 as Jobs got sicker, Apple at first announced its CEO suffered from a “hormone imbalance,” and then, after skeptical journalists wouldn’t go away, the company reluctantly corrected the record that Jobs’ health problems were, in fact, “more complex” than originally reported and that the CEO would be going on leave.
One TV reporter was outraged that, as he put it, “All along, sources inside Apple have reassured me that Jobs was firmly in charge, executing his responsibilities and performing his role as CEO.”
In point of fact, Apple’s public relations handling of its CEO’s fragile health was arrogant, dismissive, and not at all exemplary of how a public company should communicate material facts with the shareholders who“own” it.
This past August, Steve Jobs finally acknowledged that he could no longer function as Apple CEO. In the two months since his departure, the company has continued to prosper and prepare itself for yesterday’s sad news.
As a consequence, the death of its iconic founder won’t materially impact Apple’s fortunes. Had Jobs not walked away when he did and allowed others inside Apple to assume leadership, the company’s fate would have been far worse.
Once again, Steve Jobs’ public relations timing was impeccable.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, commentator, author and teacher for 40 years. He teaches public relations at NYU and is the author of the Prentice- Hall textbook "The Practice of Public Relations," now in its eleventh edition, and co-author of "Idea Wise."