Gini Dietrich

Should Apple Have Disclosed Jobs's Liver Transplant?

By: Gini Dietrich | June 22, 2009 | 

When I learned Steve Jobs had a liver transplant two months ago, my first thought was, “Wow! If I were on his PR team, I’d quit.” Talk about no transparency or honesty.

So I decided to look into the reasons behind Apple not disclosing his health issues before jumping to conclusions.

Turns out I still feel the same way I did initially…and following is why.

* On July 31, 2004, Jobs had surgery on his pancreas, nine months after being diagnosed and keeping it a secret from everyone but a small group of confidants.

* At the time, Apple entertained no questions about Jobs’s health, citing his need for privacy.

* In early January of this year, Jobs said he had a hormone imbalance that was “relatively simple and straightforward” to treat.

* A week later, he announced the issue was more complex and said he was taking a leave of absence.

* Two days ago we learn that the complex matter required a liver transplant.

* Jobs is notoriously secretive and controlling when it comes to his relationship with the media.

* Apple has drawn criticism from some shareholders over what they have called “limited disclosure of Mr. Jobs’s health problems.”

* Jobs is a leader, an executive, and a celebrity, who is widely viewed as the company’s irreplaceable leader, personally responsible for everything from the creation of the iPod to the selection of the chef in the company cafeteria.

I disagree that Apple and its board think Jobs’s health is a private matter. He has made himself a public figure synonymous with the brand; he is the face of the company. Many believe his health is instrumental in the stock performance of the company. While the U.S. has strict medical privacy laws, Jobs’s role as the company’s visionary trumps his right to privacy.

Avoiding questions about his weight last year. Telling employees, stakeholders, and his board he had a hormone imbalance. Announcing, just a week later, he had to take leave because it’s more serious than they thought. Then disclosing a liver transplant just days before he returns to work. And this is all in the past 12 months.

This screams dishonesty and non-transparency – especially in a day and age that we all are focused on transparency and authenticity – while using his right to privacy as an excuse.

As a communication professional, I recommend they focus on honesty and transparency, especially if Jobs comes back as the chief executive. If he really wants privacy and refuses to be transparent about both his personal and professional lives, it’s time to provide a clear succession plan and put other spokespeople in front of the cameras.

Until then, I quit if I’m on his executive team or am at his table as his communication professional. This is dishonest communication, no matter which way you cut it.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Len

    This is a delicate topic. On one hand, I believe that everyone should have a right to privacy. On the other people like, politicians, athletes, soldiers, or CEOs can jeopardize those around them if they withhold information. In this case, it’s very obvious that Steve Jobs is linked to Apple, its leadership, and its stock price. A transparent (without going into GREAT detail) set of updates over time would have proved more useful long term for Apple. When news like this gets leaked or announced out of nowhere it effects analyst opinions much more than if done at a steady pace. 1) It allows time for speculation and 2) The media jumps on stories like this vs. boring and consistent updates.

  • Agreed.
    Dishonesty in communication is a major problem. It leads one to wonder, “What else are they not telling us?” Stakeholders have a right to know how their investment is fairing when trouble is brewing.
    Certainly if they had taken the approach of full disclosure, they would have had to include action plans and contingencies. But, wouldn’t the public feel better knowing there’s a plan in place, instead of wondering what’s going on at corporate HQ?

  • I highly doubt that Apple stock prices would have remained stable if it were announced Jobs needed a liver transplant.

    As the corporate leader, both in practical and visionary capacities, Jobs is integral to the stability of Apple. At the very least, he is perceived to be the backbone of the organization. As such, any news about Jobs, whether it be health-related or not, should have been disclosed to shareholders and the public. Holding back this information is no different than holding back information about a key lawsuit or legal claim, or from the positive side, a new miracle drug.

    Although I respect every individual’s right to privacy, I also believe in full disclosure to shareholders that invest in an organization based upon accurate information as to the day-to-day operations, leadership, etc. of the organization. The act of holding back information of Jobs’ medical condition is reprehensible and in my opinion, almost borders on being criminal.

    The primary reason most people will not agree with me is because Jobs survived and Apple appeared to have done nothing wrong. If there action backfired and adversely affected the bottom line, many people would be screaming for someone’s head on a stick!

    Steve Jobs is a great leader and visionary, and I respect him a great deal. I’d like to extend my best wishes for a complete recovery. That being said, to the Apple Board I say, “full disclosure is your corporate responsibility.”

  • Angelica Colantuoni

    It’s hard not to think that everyone should have their right to privacy especially when it comes to medical conditions. Talking about something like a liver transplant would be hard for anyone even for Steve Jobs. BUT, I do agree that his role as the spokesperson and the irreplaceable brain of the company trumps his right to privacy. I hate it when high-profile individuals and celebrities are upset because their lives are exposed yet feel quite comfortable making millions by being in the spotlight. I don’t believe you get to pick and choose. You either are, or you aren’t. It’s not a surprise that once you make it and are in the spotlight that your entire life is free game. That’s the way it works. If you don’t want to be in the spotlight, then get out.

    Paul brings up a good point. If Jobs had not survived, would everyone be so forgiving?

  • Being a celebrity means voluntarily dismissing any right to privacy – and being a celebrity CEO of a public company means that your health is everyone’s business.
    Hiding health issues that could adversely impact company revenue & stock price is just as dishonest as hiding information on a balance sheet.
    Public CEO’s can have privacy when they quit or retire. Until then, health is a shareholder’s concern and ought to be disclosed.

  • Lindsay Brown

    I agree with Paul. Jobs is the backbone of that company and Apple stock would not have remained steady should the announcement have taken place. Knowing what Jobs did for Apple, then NeXT then Apple again, he is certainly looked up to in the industry. He is CEO and in the spotlight of one of the biggest, most successful companies in the world. He doesn’t have a personal life.

    Kudos to Apple to keeping that secret, even after he dropped all of that weight. That must have been tough!

  • Travis

    I have to agree with Gini here. What purpose does it serve to deny something that is blatantly obvious? Everyone knew that something was seriously wrong, so why hide the fact that he had a liver transplant? Beyond Steve Jobs’ loyalty to Apple shareholders, he has a responsibility to the public that has supported him for the last few decades. It wasn’t a secret that he was ill. I can certainly appreciate his desire for privacy, but as a public figure you can’t always have things go exactly the way you want them to. This whole situation has the smacking of a political leader who hides his/her medical condition in order to avoid a drop in confidence in his/her ability to lead.

    It really begs the question: What was the worst that could have happened?

  • Since Gini and I happened to blog on the same topic on the same day, of course I agree with her! Apple has never been known for its openness – it’s definitely a closed culture, which makes the health status of a key employee all the more questionable – as in, what else aren’t they telling us? Until there’s a disclosure requirement and/or until stockholders make a fuss because of a declining stock price, it’s likely that no one other than communicators and reporters care. Hope they have a good crisis communications plan.

  • Jeff

    I disagree. Apple shares were trading at 15 per share in 2004 and approximately 135 per share today. Steve Jobs works for a Board of Directors and shareowners not snippy communicators who can sit on the sidelines and throw barbs. Was he less than honest – perhaps. Did he break the law – I don’t know. Did he and the company provide value to shareowners – yes.

    Yes, he is the face today, but he will not be forever. It appears that the brand and related products is much stronger than even Jobs himself – who I believe will ultimately outlive us all, but my great grandkids will still be buying Apple products.

  • Travis

    “Steve Jobs works for a Board of Directors and shareholders not snippy communicators who can sit on the sidelines and throw barbs”. Thank you for stating what everyone knows. This isn’t a question of who Jobs works for or where his loyalty lies, it’s a question of honesty and transparency in business. How long are corporations going to fail to realize that keeping important information hidden from the public is not beneficial to the health of the company?

  • Julie S.

    A right is a right – period.

    Steve Jobs is granted a right to privacy in regard to his health, and nothing should require the abdication of that right.

    The public can choose to purchase Apple products – or not – but they should not ask Steve Jobs to give up any right just because they feel an undue sense of entitlement. Yes – honesty and transparency are both needed in business, but a medical condition is an intensely personal situation, no matter who you are.

    If you don’t agree, don’t buy Apple products. I, for one, will continue supporting the rights of all people while enjoying my iPod and MacBook and looking forward to my next Apple purchase.

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  • I think when you start leveraging your public persona and celebrity for financial gain, it becomes a part of the product everyone buys. Jobs uses his status as a public face to sell more products, so there is a cost to him in reduced privacy.

  • I agree with Julie S.

    In addition, the idea that we have a right to every detail of a person’s private life simply because they have a public persona is ridiculous and disturbing.

    Apple’s products will stand or fall on their own merit and if it all comes apart once Jobs passes on the end result won’t be changed by the timing of when we found out about the liver transplant.