I wonder what “off the record” means these days? To journalists in print — and online. And to PR people. I was thinking about that as I was running this morning. The reason? An interesting article by Joe Nocera about Steve Jobs (“Apple’s Culture Of Secrecy“) in The New York Times Saturday. Nocera also wrote about it on his NYT blog.
In a nutshell, Jobs had a bout with pancreatic cancer a few years ago. But subsequently indicated that he was cured. Then questions were raised during the past several weeks about Jobs and his health — and essentially neither Jobs nor Apple would comment. Both claimed it is a privacy issue.
That’s a point. And it’s not an insignificant one. Still, as Nocera points out, Jobs really is the key person at Apple. And his health, rightly or wrongly, influences the company’s stock price and consequently affects shareholders — and employees, suppliers, etc.
If interested, read the article and draw your own conclusions. Nocera points out that publicly traded companies are required to disclose information that is “material.” I dealt as a corporate PR guy with the issue of disclosure requirements for years, and I can tell you that the definition of what is material leaves plenty of wiggle room. Here’s from the article:
“The question surrounding any kind of corporate disclosure always is: Is it material?” said Larry S. Gondelman, a lawyer with Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville. “And there is no bright line test in determining materiality.” A spokesman for the Securities and Exchange Commission said that the law defined materiality as information that “the reasonable investor needs to know in order to make an informed decision about his investment.”
Personally, I think we would all be better off if corporations — and government and universities — disclosed more not less. I’m not all that optimistic that we will ever see that happen. And in this situation with Steve Jobs, there really is what Rushworth Kidder would call a right versus right ethical dilemma.
Well, Nocera has a bigger platform than the rest of us (New York Times, print and online) so he actually got a response from Apple’s PR guy. In effect — none of your business.
But then after that exchange, Jobs called Nocera. Here’s Nocera’s account of the conversation:
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.
Ah, gee. OK. Steve Jobs doesn’t have cancer. That’s great news. But is there an ethical issue here?
Jobs agreed to talk to Norcea “off the record.” Norcea printed the details of the conversation anyway. That’s not how I remember the game being played when I was pup back in journalism school and then working for a short time as a reporter. And as a PR person there were times when I went off the record with reporters at their request (yeah, I know, you’re never supposed to say that when teaching a PR class). But I always knew what that meant. And I would never even consider it unless I trusted the reporter. And to me off the record meant that nothing we talked about was going to be printed. Period.
So I have some problems with what Nocera did here. Although I agree that the information should be public.