What Steve Jobs' Hatemail Habit Can Teach You About PR

Last Updated Sep 20, 2010 10:56 PM EDT

Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs' ridiculous email exchange with a journalism student who complained that his PR department doesn't return messages illustrates everything that is wrong with Apple's approach to PR; and everything that is wrong with Jobs' management of his company's image generally.

Long Island University senior Chelsea Kate Isaacs tried to get a comment from Apple's PR people for a story that only had good news to tell about Apple: It was about her college buying iPads for all incoming students.

Mistake No. 1: All Apple PR had to do was email her a couple of sentences lauding itself, but they didn't. Instead, they did what Apple PR has done to countless journalists before: Ignore her.

Lesson: If a reporter offers you a "good news" story, take it.

So Isaacs emailed Jobs directly. Sure, her email featured the annoying sense of entitlement that seems to be common among today's yoof -- she wrote "I have repeatedly told them, [that a reply from Apple is] essential to my academic performance" -- but her complaint was legit: Why doesn't Apple PR ever pick up the phone?

Mistake No. 2: After some bad-tempered exchanges with Jobs which you can read in full here, Jobs ultimately told her:

Please leave us alone.
And with that, Jobs and his minions confirmed their well-earned reputation as executives who literally don't care about their customers or their public image.

Lesson: If your CEO has no patience for public conversations, don't let him or her have them.

Apple's disdain for communication -- ironic, considering its business -- is an internet meme all of its own. Ad Age says an Apple PR gig is the best job in the world because "you're not expected to answer the phone." PR Newser says "Apple's extremely tight lipped PR methods just don't work well in today's media environment." Smartphone Envy asks, "Does Apple have a PR Department?" And best of all, Valleywag offers this anecdote:

As one Silicon Valley reporter told me "If they designed the iPod, every time you went to play a song, the thing would call your parents to ask why your taste in music is terrible, and then, a week later, let you listen to 5 seconds of the song."
Those items are about different events. In other words, Apple's incompetence isn't a one-off event -- it's standard operating procedure. In reverse chronological order:
  • When Valleywag writer Ryan Tate emailed Jobs to ask how he believed Bob Dylan would regard Apple today, Jobs replied -- a propos of nothing -- that his company promised "Freedom from porn."
"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."
  • When 9-year-old Shea O'Gorman wrote a letter to Apple suggesting it would be cool if they could make the iPod provide lyrics to the songs playing on it, Apple's legal department sent her a cease-and-desist letter that made her cry.
There's an entire web site devoted to the bizarro-archive of Jobs' emails to members of the public.

Mistake No. 3: Apple doesn't take PR seriously. Apple is too big a company, with too big a brand, to get away with the amateur-hour way the company currently handles its PR. Here's Apple's media contacts page. It consists of one phone number and one email address. This is non-useful information for reporters who are trying to quickly reach the most relevant spokesperson possible. (Hard though it is to believe, PR execs, we're actually not trying to waste your time -- even though it must often seem like it.)

Lesson: Learn from a company that is equally aggressive about protecting its corporate image, but which does respond to reporters' requests: Pfizer (PFE). The Big Blue of Drugs' media contact page is a model of the form: Names, emails, cellphones, and areas of coverage so you know whose time not to waste.

If you have a CEO who knows what they're doing when it comes to public communications, then you would be well-served to let them off the leash. Domino's Pizza (DPZ)'s Patrick Byrne* Doyle is a frequent, unfiltered responder to emails directed at him, and his messages tend to be short, punctual and upbeat.

Similarly, CEO Jonah Shacknai of Medicis (MRX) -- maker of a variety of cosmetic pharmaceuticals -- is disarmingly quick to answer the phone. Unprepared reporters leave messages at his office at their peril -- you'll get more detail than you thought possible.

Mistake No. 4: Jobs doesn't understand that communicating and educating the public is part of his job. It may be boring (Byrne Doyle and Shacknai probably have the same conversations hundreds of times a year) and it may be annoying (there are plenty of stupid reporters out there) but it's a basic chore you have to get right. There's no way around it.

Currently, Apple's products are great and Jobs' business speaks for itself, so it doesn't matter if he's figuratively urinating on his fans from his office window. But nothing lasts forever: Sooner or later, Apple will slip up, and the ill-will Jobs has sown all over the globe will return to Cupertino, Calif., like a tsunami.

Lesson: Don't be like Jobs.

*See comments for an explanation of this correction.

Image by Flickr user acaben, CC.