Jobs, Jobs, Jobs and Steve Jobs

By George Merlis Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Originally, President Barrack Obama was going to give his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, January 26. But then someone in the White House realized that the address would preempt the season premier of “Lost” on ABC, so the SOU was moved to Wednesday,  January 27.  The focus of of the address was jobs. But exactly eight hours earlier, another Jobs presentation -- this one by Apple, Inc.’s Steve Jobs -- made big headlines and prompted the online magazine Slate to point out that with technology overtaking politics as an agent of social change, the president’s jobs speech might be overwhelmed by the Jobs (Steve) appearance.

The Jobs vs. Obama column was written before either man spoke. And it highlights a key point for me as a media trainer and consultant: Apple had generated nearly as much advance publicity for Jobs’ introduction of the new iPad by doing and saying nothing more than, “We’re going to be having an important announcement, we hope you’ll cover it” as the White House generated by selectively leaking elements of the State of the Union for the better part of a week.

It is counter-intuitive -- and flies in the face of what I normally counsel clients -- to generate publicity by shunning publicity. But in Apple’s case, it works. With iPad, it worked with amazing success.

A quick search in Google News immediately before Jobs introduced the iPad revealed hundreds of articles, hyping the new tablet computer and building expectations with a brio that would embarrass a Hollywood press agent. These pieces were, without exception, written by journalists and bloggers who not only had never gotten their hands on the gadget, but who could not be 100 percent sure it even existed. Articles predicted that the forthcoming Apple tablet was going to save print journalism from the fate of the dinosaurs, reinvent book and magazine reading, revolutionize electronic games, and dwarf the iPhone in lifestyle impact. I sampled about a dozen articles while waiting for the live blogging from Jobs’ announcement and 99 percent of them were rave previews of a totally unknown object. The one percenters tended to write comments along the lines of: “There is no market for tablet computers” (because previously tablets had failed); “The Apple tablet will be too expensive.” (The generally accepted price dredged from the swamp of ignorance was a thousand bucks.), and “Apple is due for a flop.” (These journalists would be well advised to steer clear of Las Vegas’ gaming tables.)

A search of the New York Times website yielded half a dozen articles in just the week leading up to the Jobs announcement -- clearly all of them written without any input from Apple spokespersons or from the New York Times digital folks who were cooperating with Apple on creating content for the iPad. (Jobs presentation featured a view of a New York Times front page on the iPad with photo slide shows, moving video on some stories and fonts that could be enlarged with the flick of a finger.)

What lesson can we learn from the free buzz Apple was able to generate? Avoid the media and they’ll write stories about you anyway? No. That tactic works only for the likes of Steve Jobs and Apple, Inc. Why? Three reasons:

1.  Apple’s track record. Although the company has had false starts since Jobs returned to the helm in 1997 (Apple TV, Mac Mini), by and large the product line has been game-changing with iPod, iMac, MacBook, iPhone and iPod Touch. So the media’s expectations are always great when Apple announces not a new product but the fact that it is GOING to announce a new product.

2.  Apple’s secrecy. The company’s passion for privacy and information control reminds me of nothing so much as North Korea. Case in point: the stonewalling that surrounded Jobs’ very serious illnesses which culminated in a liver transplant last year. Apple’s clandestine ways are an irresistible lure for media types who love to speculate.

3.  Steve Jobs’ charisma.  The media love celebrities and Jobs is one of the handful of business celebrities in the world today.

What works for Apple won’t work for the rest of us. We have to work to get in the media. We have to go out and seek attention; we can’t gain it by hiding under a rock. We have to drop hints, give out advance samples, supply facts and court journalists.  Remember, even the President leaked the substance of his State of the Union address before he made his speech.

Oh, and by the way, the iPad, despite a name which some observers feel begs comparison with a feminine hygiene products, appears to be that game-changer that the speculators thought could help (if not save) print journalism, alter the way we read books and revolutionize electronic gaming. The early media speculators missed two very important points: business capabilities and price. None of the advance stories I read noted the tablet would offer three $10 software programs that enable a business user to write documents and spreadsheets and to create and display Apple’s Keynote slide shows (think PowerPoint on steroids). This gives what otherwise would be a personal leisure device -- a turbo-charged book reader and media player -- appeal to the business buyer and widens the possible customer base. (As does the optional keyboard dock which will appeal to those who can’t imagine writing anything serious on a touch screen.) As to cost, the predictions of an $800 to $1,000 price tag were off by a significant margin. Base price for the iPad is $500 and the device can go up to $800, depending on flash drive storage capacity and connectivity options.

One final note: Jobs looked as thin as he had when he returned to the company after his liver transplant surgery, but he was energetic and his voice was vigorous. Is he okay? Don’t expect to get any accurate information about his condition from Apple; that’s just not the way they do business in Cupertino.

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