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What Steve Jobs Knew About PR

In the wake of Steve Jobs’ passing, pundits and Apple-watchers are trying to outdo one another to describe his talent, vision, and impact. But if you look at Jobs as the presumed architect of Apple’s ongoing public relations strategy, he was a disaster. At least, he should have been.

After all, in the digital age, good customer and stakeholder relations depend on transparency and openness. Jobs, by contrast, was famously private. Apple’s PR machine was accused on more than one occasion of lying, or certainly of hiding the truth. Antennagate? Deny. Product news leaks? Obfuscate. CEO health issues? Say as little as possible.

Jobs could also be visibly defensive or angry when criticized, rather than following PR principles of acknowledgement and apology. (Remember the awkward iPhone 4 press conference?)

Could any other brand have gotten away with such practices?

And yet. If Jobs broke every rule for good corporate communications with his secrecy and media-unfriendly character, he made up for it on the marketing side. He was a charismatic advocate for his own ideas and vision, even internally – hence, the famous “reality distortion field” stories. And he was indisputably a master of using the media to create excitement around new products.

Jobs gave few interviews. When he did, they were designed to support a new product, and to engage users more deeply with the Apple brand. He used his charisma and media access more skillfully than the legendary Hollywood agents of old.

Though he was famously rude to reporters who didn’t measure up to his exacting standards, he was a relentless pitcher of his own ideas. Chris Taylor’s Mashable post is my favorite reminiscence in that vein.

Like the most talented special event marketers, Jobs understood theatrics. He knew how to set the scene and tell a story. As he said, people don’t necessarily know what they want until you show it to them. And he did that…in a big way.

Most importantly, he was exciting. Not an easy interview, exactly, but always passionate, colorful, and focused. Good copy.

Jobs was a legendary marketer and one of the most effective PR advocates who ever lived, not just of his own products, but of the power of technology to change our lives. That was his real legacy.

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