Why Apple Must Tell Its Story

With Fortunes So Tied to Jobs, Marketer Needs to Lay Out Succession Plan

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The connection between Apple and Steve Jobs is unlike any other brand and CEO relationship in corporate America, maybe the world. The unflappable, black turtleneck-wearing founder is viewed as the public face of Apple, and the driving creative force behind every cool gadget it releases. In fact Jobs so epitomizes the brand that even the Mac guy in the Mac vs. PC ads is clearly meant to evoke the founder himself.
Steve Jobs: The face of Apple.
Steve Jobs: The face of Apple. Credit: Tim Wagner

So when Mr. Jobs catches a cold, Apple sneezes. And that's why the rumors and innuendo swirling about his health are particularly serious for Apple. It started with blogosphere buzz in June after Mr. Jobs -- who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004 -- appeared extremely thin, bordering on frail, while introducing the latest version of the iPhone.

Once word started circulating that he may be ill, Apple stock took a considerable hit, dropping more than $10 a share. And when Mr. Jobs was absent from last week's quarterly earnings conference call, the questions started again -- and the stock fell again.

The irony, of course, is that in the age of transparency, new media and blogs, the notoriously tight-lipped Apple is one of the few companies that manage to get away with a we-don't-have-to-respond approach to media relations. But in light of the recent questions surrounding Mr. Jobs' health, some argue it's time to start telling its life-after-Jobs story.

"The difficulty they have is the very real possibility that in Steve Jobs, Apple has created a person that cannot be replaced," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst, Enderle Group. "It's one thing to have a PR campaign that talks about life after Jobs, but would a PR campaign convince you that there would be life on earth if the sun went out?"

But if you're thinking that the company will open up to address Mr. Jobs' health and maybe its succession plan, don't hold your breath.

"If Apple decides to tell that story it's going to be when they decide to tell that story, not when the rumor mill asks them to," said a former Apple employee. "Apple has always been very private about anything related to employees. And when someone like the CEO is involved I think they are going to be even more so."

And Apple isn't offering much of a peek under the kimono. "Steve loves Apple, serves as its CEO at the pleasure of Apple's board and has no plans to leave Apple," said Steve Dowling, director-corporate PR for the company. "Steve's health is a private matter, and as you know, Apple does have a succession plan but it's confidential for obvious reasons."

But where does that leave Joe Investor if even Mr. Enderle, who follows the company more closely than most, doesn't believe the company has a credible succession strategy or is creating one?

"After being booted out of the company once, Steve Jobs probably isn't really excited about the board creating a solid plan to replace him," Mr. Enderle said. There's no doubt Mr. Jobs would have his hands involved in a succession plan as it's common knowledge that nothing gets done at Apple without his OK.

No disclosure needed
Michael Gartenberg, VP-research director at Jupiter Research, thinks Apple should not launch a PR or media relations campaign to explain itself. "Everything the company does is put under a microscope and I guess people make stock purchases based on such information. Perhaps this is the downside of that relationship, but I certainly don't feel that means they need to disclose anything other than his ability to run the company as CEO."

Mark Hass, CEO of Manning Selvage & Lee, said when a company is so closely tied to its CEO "you almost need to have a marketing crisis plan in place" should that individual decide to leave or step down.

Even so, Mr. Hass doesn't know if it's the right time to start introducing other executives within Apple to the public or talking about a succession plan. "The brand's success is so closely tied to him that you don't want to necessarily mess with a formula that's working unless you need to," he said. "If it's not broken, don't fix it."
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