Crisis Management: Speak up – Steve Jobs : From archives
(Note – This was clearly written before Steve Jobs died. Furthermore, the day this was published in the Business Journal of the Triad, John Edwards admitted the affair and coverup that would destroy his political career. Nevertheless, the principles, I believe, are timeless.)
Apple CEO Steve Jobs and former presidential candidate John Edwards share a dilemma. Should they keep their mouths shut? For wildly different reasons they face that crisis communications dilemma: go pro-active or say nothing. Complicating it is that the issues for each are personal. Or are they?
In a nutshell, was the Apple chief seriously ill, and, did the former candidate have an affair?
Let’s start with Jobs. Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal discussed speculation whether the lately gaunt Jobs were dying and if so, why hadn’t he told shareholders? Jobs had pancreatic cancer three years ago and apparently beat it in spite of being given six months to live. Only many months after the diagnosis and successful surgery did he inform employees and, indirectly, shareholders. Reportedly Jobs held back because he thought he could be cured. The company said nothing citing health privacy. This June new rumors began after Jobs looked fragile at a conference. The company said he had a “common bug.” Later in a conference call Apple’s CFO said Jobs’ health is a private matter. Jobs eventually called Times reporter Joe Nocera, and after some nasty remarks to the journalist, said he would only talk off the record. Nocera agreed but relayed that Jobs’ health problems were neither life-threatening nor a recurrence of his cancer. After noting that Jobs may be the most indispensable CEO on the planet, Nocera wondered why Jobs hadn’t given his own shareholders a medical all-clear. While no one has suggested Apple has violated a law or regulation, the Journal reminded us that the SEC requires companies to disclose material information to investors so they can make informed investment decisions.
As for North Carolina Democrat John Edwards, he’s in a sleazy spot. The tabloid National Enquirer claimed its reporters caught Edwards visiting a woman and “love child” at the Beverly Hilton hotel, and that Edwards hid in a restroom and relied on a security guard to help him flee Enquirer reporters. Fox News confirmed the security guard encounter. Later, when more reporters tried to question Edwards in Washington after a speech, Raleigh’s News and Observer said Edwards exited at the rear of the hotel, brushed off a Charlotte Observer reporter and other journalists to leave in a waiting car. The Enquirer has been pressing this story since last October. After a Houston speech in July, Edwards answered a reporter’s question about the “affair” by calling it “tabloid trash.”
So, if you were advising Jobs and Edwards what would you say? For Jobs: it’s nobody’s business? For Edwards: don’t dignify it with a response?
Hunkering down is a strategy. Celebrities often do it. Don’t feed the flames. Say little or nothing. Health is private and so is an affair for most people.
Regular readers of this column know I often advocate a strategy that I call the reassurance principle. Those affected by a controversy want to know whether they are safe. Your actions and words should reassure them that they are. So, I ask, do shareholders feel safe not knowing whether Apple’s CEO will tell them if he is seriously ill? Do supporters of John Edwards, who is still giving speeches and once was on the Vice President-contender list for Obama, feel safe since he’s started ducking mainstream reporters?
I believe Mr. Jobs and Mr. Edwards owe investors and voters reassurance.