Apple CEO Steve Jobs' latest round of off-the-cuff communications raises some great questions for communicators. Chief among them: If a CEO screws up but no one seems to care, does that have any effect on the company's reputation?
Jobs coolly brushed aside concerns over revelations of Apple collecting iPhone and iPad users' location data. Many say that approach works only if your company is the most valuable brand in the world, which Apple happens to be, with a brand value of $153 billion, according to BrandZ.
For the rest of us, however, there are key lessons to be learned from Apple's bizarrely successful style of communications.
Apple has largely eschewed the decade-long push for companies to communicate every second of every day with their customers. Not only that , it is often secretive and does little to temper media reports and wild speculation over forthcoming product launches.
Yet it remains widely successful. Doesn't this fly in the face of all communications counsel?
Most brands are committed to engaging customers across a variety of communications channels. From Tweets, Facebook updates and email messages, we're bombarded with communications from our favorite and not-so-favorite brands, whether we like it or not.
Apple, on the other hand, hasn't given in to the peer pressure to do the same. Why should it?
Of course, this hasn't always worked out in the company's favor. And examples abound of Jobs' predilection for handling PR issues himself getting the company into hot water.
From telling a college student who was seeking insight for a paper to "please, leave us alone" to threatening a multitude of lawsuits against tech blog Gizmodo after it published photos and a review of an iPhone 4G prototype in 2010, Jobs comes across as an egotistical entrepreneur concerned only with the success of his company's products.
He is not much different than the average entrepreneur, one might think. But it's this distinctly anti-PR stance that oddly works in Apple's favor. And, let me add, only works in Apple's favor.
That is because Jobs' dismissive attitude stands in sharp contrast with the average customer's experience with Apple. Anyone who has been to an Apple store and experienced its phenomenal customer service knows that the employees, who are a huge part of the company, care deeply about its reputation. Its employees embody the modern notion of brand ambassadors.
There are two key lessons we can take from Apple's point/counterpoint style of public relations.
For one, we shouldn't be so quick to prescribe one-size-fits-all marketing or public relations strategies. In an increasingly global business landscape, what works best for a company in one market rarely translates well when taken outside the friendly confines of home.
Jobs surely understands this, which is why he has built Apple into a customer-service-centric powerhouse, chock full of employees who are well versed in the one universal communication principle people all over the world understand: empathy.
Walk into any Apple store and you immediately feel welcomed, not overwhelmed with sales people looking to make a quick commission, but a knowledgeable workforce which lives and breathes the company. The kind of true brand ambassador money rarely can buy.
Secondly, Apple's employees demonstrate that the success of a company, even at the point-of -sale level, extends to how well it relates to its public -- a business' literal "public relations." Furthermore, the company's five-fold increase in share price since 2006 adds credence to the growing belief among researchers that reputation and trust have a direct impact on profitability.
But that doesn't atone for the fact that Jobs' documented communications with customers remains the antithesis of what many consider good public relations.
Apple should consider itself lucky that its external-facing employees have so fervently bought into and embraced open and earnest communications with customers. Just imagine if Steve Jobs was the guy who greeted you the next time you walked into an Apple store with a complaint.
Jobs' flippant communications style may not adversely affect Apple's reputation or brand value, but a front-of -store employee telling a customer to "Please, leave us alone" surely would.