The death earlier this month of Steve Jobs, one of the world’s most beloved and iconic corporate CEOs, brought to mind a number of lessons and questions for those of us in public relations.
The first for me was, how did Jobs manage to keep his private life private despite being one of the most well-known and influential manipulators of 21st Century society and culture?
It is difficult to overstate just how much Jobs changed the world. Simply put, the technology he and Apple created rewired the way the world communicates. Yet few details of his private side, from his family life to how he managed the disease that ultimately took his life, were known. He was the gatekeeper of those details, and he protected them vigorously. Part of the answer may be in how Jobs meted out those few precious glimpses into the man behind image.
When Jobs did provide a peak into his personality and psyche, he did so in an artfully choreographed way. Just as he successfully branded Apple as a technological innovator and upstart (despite being one of the world’s largest companies), Jobs branded himself as the benevolent Zen master who not only gave the masses what they wanted, but also told them what they wanted.
The image of Jobs for most people is that of a supremely confident showman on stage, wearing jeans and a mock turtleneck, introducing the world to another must-have technological marvel from Apple.
It is amazing, almost shocking, that in an era when celebrity media and paparazzi are quick to find and exploit the human foibles of everyone from Michael Jackson to Sarah Palin, Jobs’ image remains pristine and deserving of adoration.
For example, Twitter was abuzz with everything Jobsian in the hours and days after his death. Among those tweets were blunt warnings from media members that any story pitch related to Jobs’ death would bring immediate scorn and rejection for any hapless flack who dared to try it.
Here’s another. The publishers of The New Yorker already are being criticized for the magazine’s Oct. 17 cover illustration. Defenders of the Jobs aura say they are offended by the image of Jobs, a Buddhist, being greeted at the pearly gates by an iPad-wielding St. Peter.
So when will it be safe to talk about Jobs in a story pitch without appearing ghoulish?
There are plenty of legitimate pitches out there, from succession management (how does a company continue when an iconic leader dies?) to the erosion Americans’ view of CEOs (what exempted Jobs from being cast as another overpaid corporate honcho?).
There is no simple answer. Just when it will be safe to pitch Mr. Jobs may be determined more by the news cycle — when another high-profile celebrity death or scandal occurs — than a particular period of time for respectful mourning.
In the end, it may be best to simply sit back and admire the legacy left behind by Jobs, a college dropout who demonstrated a genius not just for technology, but also marketing, branding and public opinion.
Robert Perez is a senior account executive at CBR.