Look for Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) stock to jump a few bucks Monday on the news leaked to the New York Times by Steve Jobs himself that his rare form of pancreatic cancer hasn't returned as rumored. But he confirmed to the Times' Joe Nocera that he has had surgery for some kind of stomach problems and and some post operation complications that people noticed when he appeared in public last month. The story is here.
After recounting the rumors about Jobs' health, the speculation that Apple's stock (AAPL) would drop as much as 25% if he were to leave unexpectedly and a little history of how other CEOs have disclosed and not told shareholders about their serious illnesses, Nocera drops the bomb in these concluding graphs:
On Thursday afternoon, several hours after I’d gotten my final “Steve’s health is a private matter” — and much to my amazement — Mr. Jobs called me. “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.” After that rather arresting opening, he went on to say that he would give me some details about his recent health problems, but only if I would agree to keep them off the record. I tried to argue him out of it, but he said he wouldn’t talk if I insisted on an on-the-record conversation. So I agreed. Because the conversation was off the record, I cannot disclose what Mr. Jobs told me. Suffice it to say that I didn’t hear anything that contradicted the reporting that John Markoff and I did this week. While his health problems amounted to a good deal more than “a common bug,” they weren’t life-threatening and he doesn’t have a recurrence of cancer. After he hung up the phone, it occurred to me that I had just been handed, by Mr. Jobs himself, the very information he was refusing to share with the shareholders who have entrusted him with their money. You would think he’d want them to know before me. But apparently not.
Nocera does a good job of covering the ethics of Jobs' secretiveness about his health. He doesn't discuss the ethics of allowing Jobs to go off the record with him, and he doesn't directly discuss the deal they made that allowed him to break his big scoop. Having been in such situations, but not anywhere near as important as this one, I can speculate about how the conversation probably went. Jobs said he wanted to talk off the record. No reporter wants to go off the record, but many do, as Nocera did in this case. Off the record means none of the information disclosed can be reported. The reporter is supposed to use the information to help him dig into the story and to keep his facts straight. Not for attribution means a reporter can use the information disclosed without attributing it to the person who is being interviewed.
Nocera's interview with Jobs was both off the record and not for attribution. They obviously agreed on what would be off the record, and what would be disclosed but not directly attributed to Jobs. During the interview, Jobs obviously shot down the rumors that his pancreatic cancer has returned, and he confirmed that he's had surgery and suffered from some complications. That he doesn't have cancer was the big and important news that Jobs wanted Nocera to publish on Sunday while the markets were closed and without attributing it to him. Done deal. That Jobs has had surgery and complications was rumored. Nocera already had that information. His conversation with Jobs confirmed those rumors and he reported them. Nocera probably wouldn't have reported the rumors the way he does in this story if Jobs hadn't given him the confidence to do so. So this is first, a big news story about Jobs' health. It's a market mover. Second, this is an ethics story. It shows how business ethics converges with journalistic ethics. And third, this is a public relations story.
Jobs is one of the most PR savvy CEOs around. He knows the PR game and how to manipulate the media, analysts, shareholders, customers, employees and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Jobs obviously concluded that the line that his health is "a private matter" could no longer stand. The pressure from investors, his advisors and his board to be more forthcoming was just too great. But, as always, Jobs had to do it his way. He didn't reinvent the wheel with his approach, but he certainly has made sure the world knows that he is Apple and that he's cancer free at the moment, if not without health problems.
Disclosure: I don't own AAPL.