(Courtesy of the New York Times)
By Kyle Austin
I had made it back to Boston on Saturday, after my trip out to Fortune Brainstorm: TECH, and was enjoying my iced-coffee (America runs on Dunkins’) with the New York Times when I had one of those near death choking experiences. It happened when I flipped to page two and was enjoying Joe Nocera’s Talking Business column on “Apple’s Culture of Secrecy.” It was an interesting read already (Nocera kicked it off with Job’s famous quote from the Stanford commencement a few years back “No one wants to die and yet death is a destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.” – talk about getting sucked in) and then I got to the actual phone call as noted by Nocera, in the final two paragraphs (Talk about burying a lead):
On Thursday afternoon, several hours after I’d gotten my final “Steve’s health is a private matter” — and much to my amazement — Mr. Jobs called me. “This is Steve Jobs,” he began. “You think I’m an arrogant [expletive] who thinks he’s above the law, and I think you’re a slime bucket who gets most of his facts wrong.”
One of those moments where liquid somehow makes it back through your nose (apologize for the visual). I did manage to resuscitate myself.
You see, I’ve been having a back and forth email exchange with Joe for a couple weeks on random topics: His Loeb Award Win, AMD & Intel and doing a Q&A with me for our blog (which he agreed to do) – so I owed him a few questions. Of course I didn’t realize he was going to publish a column on Saturday that would kick-off a week-long buzz while he escaped for vacation until August 4th.
Now I have a million questions to ask him and he’s probably in the Berkshires.
There has been tons of commentary in the blogs on this already. The Real Dan Lyons (who never came up with a Fake Steve Jobs’ line as good as this actual Steve Jobs’ line) gave his in-depth analysis. Claiming that Nocera got played by Jobs and his PR team by taking an “ambush call” and allowing Mr. Jobs to talk off-the-record. You see, after Jobs re-introduced himself to Nocera, as only he could, he went on to agree to talk to Nocera about his health – as long as it was off-the-record. Here is how Nocera’s article concluded after Jobs’ opening line:
“After that rather arresting opening, he went on to say that he would give me some details about his recent health problems, but only if I would agree to keep them off the record. I tried to argue him out of it, but he said he wouldn’t talk if I insisted on an on-the-record conversation. So I agreed.
Because the conversation was off the record, I cannot disclose what Mr. Jobs told me. After he hung up the phone, it occurred to me that I had just been handed, by Mr. Jobs himself, the very information he was refusing to share with the shareholders who have entrusted him with their money.You would think he’d want them to know before me. But apparently not.”
Since the June Worldwide Developers Conference where Jobs appeared to be gaunt (pictured above), people have been buzzing about his health. Last Wednesday John Markoff reported in the New York Times that Jobs had surgery this year to address a problem that was contributing to his weight loss. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier last week that “fund managers have talked of asking doctors to closely analyze pictures of Mr. Jobs to monitor changes in his physical appearance, and have been talking about once again hiring investigators to find out Mr. Jobs’ prognosis.”
There are no hard and fast rules about how and when companies need to disclose information about the health of their chief executives. But it seems that the vaunted Apple PR machine has let this get completly out of control. If Mr. Jobs did in-fact call Nocera with his PR team on the line (as folks such as Lyons believe) in a last ditch effort to spin the story in a positive direction – it certainly backfired. Yes, he (or they) somehow got Nocera to state the following, based on and off-the-record conversation:
Suffice it to say that I didn’t hear anything that contradicted the reporting that John Markoff and I did this week. While his health problems amounted to a good deal more than “a common bug,” they weren’t life-threatening and he doesn’t have a recurrence of cancer.
This asserted (like Markoff’s piece did as well) that Jobs has been sick but not that sick (and doesn’t have recurring cancer).
However, they also gave him the ammunition to illustrate Jobs and his organization as the arrogant folks who think they are above the law (as Jobs duly noted himself), while also allowing him to portray that they gave him the very information that they have been unwilling to give investors.
Yes, Nocera, Jobs and Apple have a history. During Nocera’s run as an Editor at Fortune they crossed paths several times (not always friendly). Nocera has also published stories on Apple’s backdating scandal and problems with the iPhone over the last year in the Times. But why push him even further in his potential negative view of the company? Why cross-off another reporter that you could work with, when there aren’t that many left out there? For an organization that has one of the best marketing forces I’ve ever seen the secretive nature of their PR practice is completely baffling.
In addition, either come clean in an on-the-record-conversation or stick with what you’ve been saying all along by going with the it’s a “private matter.” Don’t flip-flop half way and if you’re going to, certainly don’t start the conversation with something that you know is going to make you look foolish in print. If you think he’s going to get the facts wrong then why contact him in the first place?
As Lyons sums up best about the situation on his blog:
“The unfortunate thing about this arrogance is that no matter how hot a company may be, eventually every company stumbles. Someday Apple will need friends among the hackery. I’m not sure it will have any.”
Hopefully I can add more of Joe’s thoughts on the situation when he’s back next week. Would love to hear what questions you’d like me to ask him.