It may seem like a relatively trivial concept, but not responding to calls from reporters in a timely fashion, or accepting their calls when available, can be a fatal mistake. To the everyday reader, an article that states, “CEO of XXXX Company was not available for comment” may translate as “CEO of XXXX Company is ducking our calls” or worse “CEO of XXXX company doesn’t care about this issue”. For media relations professionals, this may take a turn for the worse if a persistent reporter is sniffing out a response. Said reporter may go right to the source, often the company CEO or President, and, if you don’t advise your client wisely, he may not know how to respond, which can lead to negligence or, in this case, an inappropriate email.
When college journalism student, Chelsea, could not reach the Apple media relations department (after SIX phone messages!), she took a shot in the dark and emailed Steve Jobs directly. Her email simply explained that she needed a comment from the media relations department for an assignment and inquired as to why she was being ignored. To which Jobs replied: “Our goals do not include helping you get a good grade”. The remaining email thread can be found here.
In the end, Jobs end the conversation with this prize statement: “Please leave us alone”. Smooth. An issue that could have been diffused with one phone call from an Apple media relations employee is now national news, featured on ABC News. The story criminalizes Jobs repeatedly, emphasizing his net worth (which really has nothing to do with this story), making him look like the Big Bad Billionaire, while depicting Chelsea as a model student who is simply trying to learn.
Who’s to blame here? There is CLEARLY no excuse for Jobs’ behavior. He could have provided her with a media relations contact, apologized or simply not responded. Any of those options would have been better than the path he took. That said, his media relations staff is ultimately to blame for this PR nightmare. If they had properly done their jobs, they would have responded to one of the Chelsea’s six messages before this ever reached the CEO. Instead, they shrugged her off, perhaps because she is a student and not a reporter from the New York Times, and she hit the streets.
Lesson learned, PR pros! Answer your phone, check your messages and, most importantly, respond! Never underestimate the little guy.