Diagnosing Apple's PR Afflictions
When it comes to Steve Jobs' health, who's telling the truth? Apple, famous for managing the message, has been forthcoming to a point. So journalists do what they're trained to do, and seek out the story -- but where do you draw the line between rumors and legitimate news?
Unless Apple is planning on unveiling an iCar, an iHome or an iBrain at Tuesday's Macworld Expo in San Francisco, the media focus will remain squarely on Steve Jobs; his absence, his health, his successors. That's as it should be, even with the "Dear Apple Community" letter from Jobs that the company released Monday, and an accompanying statement of support from Apple's board of directors.
Still, I feel sorry for anyone who's wearing a press badge in the Moscone Center audience. I've attended a couple of Macworlds as a tech reporter for CNBC, and I've felt the heat that emanates from the Apple acolytes in the audience, cheering wildly at the new products and laughing at Jobs' Microsoft jokes. I can just imagine the response from the crowd if Jobs' keynote replacement Phil Schiller, Apple senior vice president for marketing, decides to get medieval on the media -- blogs included -- for its obsession with Jobs' weight, the reporting of rumors from anonymous sources and the airing of false iReport-ed Jobs heart attacks. All those liveblogging the keynote should arm themselves with earplugs -- or maybe earbuds from an iPod.
Many of the catcalls from the Mac faithful got a tryout on the comments sections of most of the traditional media Web sites or tech-related blogs that reported on the Jobs letter Monday. It didn't matter if the reporting was well-sourced and complete, like Tom Krazit's Cnet story. It was still greeted with this comment: "I'm not sure what got put in the water coolers at C|Net over the holidays, but you folks have collectively lost it today." The commenter surely didn't approve of Krazit's headline: "Steve Jobs' Health Now a Public Matter."
Jacob Goldstein, posting on The Wall Street Journal's Health Blog, helped fill in the holes in Jobs' letter. Jobs said the reason he lost weight in 2008 was a hormone imbalance that kept his body from absorbing needed proteins. Was it tied at all to his bout with a rare form of pancreatic cancer? Jobs didn't say, but Goldstein interviewed two endrocrinologists -- including one from the Mayo Clinic -- who said the hormone issue was probably related. That didn't stop the Mac fans. "Jacob, get a life," wrote one. "Thanks for confirming my decision that the WSJ is closer to the Nationl Inquirer that it is a business journalism publication," wrote another.
Krazit and Goldstein were just doing their jobs -- but I guess the Macolytes have to stick up for their Jobs too.
New vs. Traditional Media - Again
It's expected to find anonymous commenters taking potshots at reporters or bloggers, but when the bloggers and other new media types go after traditional media, it gets downright unseemly. Silicon Alley Insider fed the new-vs.-old-media meme with its headline, "Gizmodo Gets Steve Jobs Macworld Story Right, CNBC Gets It Wrong."
The gist of Nicholas Carlson's story is that everybody, including CNBC tech reporter Jim Goldman, bought Apple's explanation on Dec. 16 when it announced that this would be the company's last Macworld and that Jobs would not be making the keynote appearance we've expected for the past 10 years; it was "more about politics than about his pancreas," as Goldman quoted his company sources. Apple doesn't need expensive trade shows to introduce new products, they said.
However, last week, Gizmodo bloggers quoted their own anonymous longtime Apple source who said Jobs was passing on the keynote because his health was "declining rapidly." The stock sank, and Goldman checked again with his sources who said nothing had changed from their original statement. SAI believes Jobs' letter validates -- at least in this instance -- new media over old, and that bloggers can have potent sources too, even if Jobs says in the letter that his imbalance should be corrected before the summer.
Goldman also wrote the following in his same "TechCheck" blog posting: "If Apple is lying, holding some truth back, manipulating its own stock by manipulating the truth, someone -- indeed a lot of people -- could be going to jail. Do I like the way Apple has handled this ongoing story? No. But do I traffic in rumors to fill the void the company has created by not choosing to be more forthcoming about Jobs' health? Absolutely not. When Apple's got something material to report, I trust that it will. Meantime, unsourced garbage nuking its shares is just that."
Full disclosure: I know Goldman well. He took over the tech beat at CNBC when I left the network in 2000. He's one of the best, and the reason he's one of the best is because he's all about journalism with a capital "J." His bosses also appreciate that -- which is why they don't want him airing rumors. I've written in this column about the hard lessons we all learned at CNBC in the late 1990s when short-sellers and day traders would float unsubstantiated rumors about publicly traded companies on message boards.
Carlson's point about bloggers and their sources is really about the bigger issue of new media rules: There really aren't any, and Apple has once again helped to illustrate that.
Apple's PR Problem
It's going to seem like I know everybody and their dog in the tech world, but then again, I've been at this for a while. (I'm not saying I'm old, but pretty soon you're going to need carbon-14 dating methods to determine my exact age.) Web 2.0 is all about transparency, so you need to be aware that I am also familiar with the person who helps lead Apple's PR department. Steve Dowling used to be CNBC's Silicon Valley bureau chief. He's all too familiar with how business journalists get to the truth. After he left CNBC to work at Apple, he helped set up interviews with Jobs for me during my time at Headline News.
I'm hoping that Dowling isn't contributing to Apple's wobbly strategy regarding Jobs' health issues. To be fair, everybody needs to understand that he's working for one of the most mercurial CEOs ever. What Jobs says goes, and if he doesn't want to say everything there is to say about his health -- even if I and others think that's the wrong approach -- then that's that. And Apple's PR department was famous before Dowling got there for its absolute control of the message.
Still, if Web 2.0 and the new media are teaching Apple and the rest of us anything, it's that you ultimately don't have control if you don't buy into transparency, and it's my sincere hope that Dowling is preaching that message internally. In the 21st Century, stories escape their masters much sooner than they used to.
Mac fans who despise publication of rumors about Jobs' health lap up rumors concerning new iProducts. Jobs is at the vortex of this tornado of attention; the company must be upfront about everything, and not just when the rumors reach critical mass. He's the CEO of the most blogged-about tech company on the planet, with responsibility to shareholders. His image is Apple's image. If the rumors are at a fever pitch and impacting stock price, then, sadly, the issue of privacy becomes moot.
Stonewalling is simply not the Apple way. At least, it's not the Apple that charmed me when I bought my first iPod and took it out of its box, only to find a little message on the clear plastic that encased the media player. "Don't steal music," it said, addressing head-on the controversy over illegal downloads.
Nicely done. But a letter from Steve Jobs that appears to answer questions only to raise more, and simply roils the blogosphere, is no way to think different.