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Apple’s Public Relations Balancing Act

Steve Jobs is alive. That much we know. But the health status of the co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Apple, Inc. remains a mystery to many, especially those who believe Jobs and the company’s public relations department are not being completely honest. One thing is clear: Questions about Jobs’ health are not going away anytime soon.

Concerns over Jobs’ health first surfaced in 2004 when the visionary technologist disclosed that he had a rare but treatable form of pancreatic cancer. Since then, every public appearance by Jobs has been scrutinized, and each time Jobs does not appear at an Apple event, rumors kick up suggesting that the man behind the iPod and the Mac is deathly ill.

Earlier this week, Jobs missed the Macworld conference. It was announced in mid-December that he would not be attending; with those persistent rumors about Jobs’ health, the sometimes tight-lipped CEO issued an open letter saying that doctors had diagnosed him with “a hormone imbalance” that has led to dramatic weight loss and that it will take a few months for him to recover fully.

“I have given more than my all to Apple for the past 11 years now,” Jobs wrote. “I will be the first one to step up and tell our Board of Directors if I can no longer continue to fulfill my duties as Apple’s CEO. I hope the Apple community will support me in my recovery and know that I will always put what is best for Apple first.”

Steve Jobs is widely respected, but the concerns about his health have more to do with selfishness than humanitarianism. The financial community believes that Jobs is the one irreplaceable CEO in America and that Apple would be a much different, potentially much weaker company if Jobs was no longer in charge. Consumers, meanwhile, fear that Apple will no longer be innovative without Jobs’ influence. It’s obvious to anyone that consumer electronics and computing companies would not be offering up such robust products without Apple pushing the envelope.

Apple’s public relations team, which is known for exerting Soviet-like control over information, has played the issue of Jobs’ health close. Jobs is the only one who will comment publicly on his own health; company representatives, from c-level executives on down, routinely say that Jobs’ health is a “private matter.”

Issues regarding the health of executives are difficult to handle from a public relations perspective. The balance between respecting an executive’s privacy and disclosing material information to shareholders, employees, and partners can be a thin line. McDonald’s saw two consecutive CEOs pass away within a span of two years, one from cancer and one from a heart attack. The company was forthcoming in the news about the cancer victim, Charlie Bell, but could do nothing ahead of time when Jim Cantalupo suddenly passed away.

Late last year, Rogers Communications Founder and CEO Ted Rogers died due to a heart condition. The company had announced his hospitalization a few months earlier, but Rogers remained on the job while seeking treatment.

Several years ago, then Intel CEO Andy Grove successfully battled prostate cancer. Grove had informed the company’s board of directors of his condition, but no public disclosure was made for more than a year, by which time Grove was cancer-free. Few, if any, investors seemed to care since the issue was moot by the time it was disclosed.

Because of Jobs’ stature and his long list of accomplishments, his health will continue to be closely scrutinized. Apple’s public relations department will have to tread lightly, protecting Jobs’ privacy while also keeping shareholders informed. Jobs seems to understand this; it’s ridiculous to believe that he would endanger the company he loves so much in lieu of being honest. This sort of trust will not satisfy everyone, however.

Stock analysts and business reporters are charged with digging for answers. In the absence of concrete information, they resort to theorizing and sometimes to gossip. There is little anyone can do to stop these rumors, aside from Jobs releasing his complete medical history. Unless Jobs wants to take this step, which no one could reasonably expect, Apple will just have to deal with its stock price fluctuating depending on the rumor du jour — and Jobs will have to deal with constant questions about his health instead of iPhones.

Steve Jobs should be proud of his achievements, and take some small satisfaction in knowing that no other CEO’s health is so important to the public. Sadly, Jobs must also know that his achievements have come with a hefty price — his privacy — one that most people will never have to pay.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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