Sunday, August 01, 2004


There is nothing more frightening to a company than to have a leader go down with illness when that leader stands for the firm. That is what has happened to Apple Computer. Steve Jobs has been the image and innovation of Apple since the beginning. He has no obvious successor. Although he states the type of cancer he has is completely curable, the survival rate of typical pancreatic cancer victims is low.

The communications task in a case like this is delicate. First of all, it is a material disclosure item. One has to inform shareholders the CEO is ill. The question is how and when. Second, the way one informs shareholders is ticklish. It is easy for shareholders to panic and dump the stock. (Don't be surprised if Apple's stock dives for a few days until Jobs' health is reappraised.) Third, employees can be spooked. One has to be careful how one tells them the news. Fourth, the Jobs' family cannot be ignored. An alarming turn of health is something a family has to adjust to but in this case it is being done in public under the gaze of millions.

Although I have only read the Reuters story, it appears Jobs was careful to give the news as completely as possible to forestall second-guessing and rumor. That was a smart for him to do, and he was lucky to be able to do it. There have been CEOs diagnosed with fatal conditions like brain cancer. It was a matter of time for them, and handling news like that is worse. One has to tell the fact but out of concern for the business, family, employees and customers, one doesn't want to tell the whole story -- i.e., it is only a matter of time. There is much tea leaf reading and head nodding in cases like this. The insiders know: The rest speculate.

Stay in PR long enough, and you will deal with a case of fatal or near-fatal illness in the senior executive ranks. It is no fun, but it is part of the job.


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