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i-Spy # 2: Steve Jobs’ Rude Email with Student

September 24, 2010

Crisis:  A transcript of a not-so-tactful email correspondence between Apple CEO Steve Jobs and a college student recently made its way online and has been brewing up resentment towards Jobs from college students and Apple customers.

Principle: Listen to the customer” and “a company’s true character is expressed by its people.”

If asked how to become a successful business, PR pioneer Arthur W. Page would advise you to listen to the customer and realize that a company’s true character is expressed by its people.  Steve Jobs, on the other hand, might tell you simply to leave him alone.

Jobs, the C.E.O. of Apple, made the mistake of ticking off outspoken Long Island University student journalist, Chelsea Isaacs, during an email exchange regarding Apple’s PR department. 

Isaacs was frustrated that Apple’s PR department had failed to reply to her several requests for a quote, and emailed Jobs her on a whim.  The senior journalist student wanted a quote for her newspaper story about the prospect of LIU students receiving iPads to help their academic performance. 

Isaacs email read: 

“Mr. Jobs, I humbly ask why Apple is so wonderfully attentive to the needs of students, whether it be with the latest, greatest invention or the company’s helpful customer service line, and yet, ironically, the Media Relations Department fails to answer any of my questions which are, as I have repeatedly told them, essential to my academic performance.”


Job’s response:

“Our goals do not include helping you get a good grade. Sorry.”

Isaac’s response:

“I never said that your goal should be to “help me get a good grade.” Rather, I politely asked why your media relations team does not respond to emails, which consequently, decreases my chances of getting a good grade. But, forget about my individual situation; what about common courtesy, in general —- if you get a message from a client or customer, as an employee, isn’t it your job to return the call? That’s what I always thought. But I guess that’s not one of your goals.”

 Job’s Second Response:

“Nope. We have over 300 million users and we can’t respond to their requests unless they involve a problem of some kind. Sorry.”

Isaac’s Third Response:

You’re absolutely right, and I do meet your criteria for being a customer who deserves a response:

1. I AM one of your 300 million users.
2. I DO have a problem; I need answers that only Apple Media Relations can answer.

Now, can they kindly respond to my request (my polite and friendly voice can be heard in the first 5 or 10 messages in their inbox). Please, I am on deadline.

Job’s Final Response: “Please leave us alone.”

            Okay, Steve Jobs, we get it.  You’re the head of a multi-billion dollar company, the 137th richest man in the world, and you have better things to do than cater to the needs of a whining student journalist bad-mouthing your PR department.  But did you really need to reply with such a blatant disregard for customer satisfaction?  Isaac’s news story was about the effectiveness of iPads as a learning tool, and the story could have helped Apple sell hundreds of its products to an entire student body.  He could have just as easily not responded to the email, but instead Jobs chose to reply in an extremely pompous manner, showing his complete indifference for his customer.

            Mr. Jobs’ sassy email correspondence violated at least two Page Principles and may have cost Apple thousands of dollars in potential sales.  If Jobs had replied to Isaac’s email with thoughtful consideration, this story could have helped Apple’s relationship with college students around the world, demonstrating that even the CEO himself cares about what the little guy has to say.  But the fact that Jobs chose to reply in such an unprofessional manner is what landed this story on the’s Daily Dog page as a PR “woof!”

            So Steve if you’re reading this: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Question to the Class: PR managers often muzzle their athletes, movie stars or political figures, but should corporate PR departments stifle or actively regulate its company’s executives’ direct communication with clients?

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