PR Rule #1: People who are telling the truth about themselves do not insist on being 'off the record'

Best part of Joe Nocera’s article from yesterday’s New York Times (“Apple’s Culture of Secrecy”) was, of course, the quote from Steve Jobs, the one where Nocera picks up the phone and Jobs hits him with this opening line: “This is Steve Jobs. 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.” 

In other words: Classy.

And just the kind of thing you’d expect from the CEO of a large, publicly traded company, right?

One thing that stuck with me was the expletive. I keep wondering, which word did he use? My picks, in no particular order, would be dick, prick, fuck or fucker. Maybe he used something bland, like bastard, but from what I’ve heard about Jobs, I doubt it.

It also struck me as classic Jobs, in that what he said was rude and obnoxious but also, oddly enough, highly perceptive. In one sentence Jobs managed to speak the essential truth about himself and Joe Nocera.

How many times do you think Jobs rehearsed that opening line before he dialed (or had Katie Cotton dial for him)? I’d say he practiced it one hundred times. And I’d say Katie was definitely on the line with him, though she probably pretended not to be. Furthermore, I’d bet a signed dollar bill that Apple recorded the phone call, just in case Nocera decided to run the stuff that Steve gave him under their “off the record” agreement.

That agreement by the way is worth a look as well. Why wouldn’t Jobs just tell Nocera on the record that  “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,” as Nocera reported?

I’m always suspicious of off-the-record demands, especially in cases like this, and I’m not sure Nocera should have agreed to it. What he produces is a kind of denial that isn’t really a denial. Clearly Jobs and Apple want to get out the message that Steve is okay. They want to protect the stock. They were clearly freaked out about what Nocera might say in his column.

If Nocera had simply refused to go off the record, the burden would have remained on Jobs to get his message out and to do it openly or suffer continued hits to Apple stock. By going off the record, Nocera let himself get played by Jobs and Apple. Consider this. What if Jobs is lying? I’m not saying he is. But gods have been known to lie, especially when dealing with mere mortals. Think of how Zeus looked upon humans and you get an idea how Jobs views pretty much everyone in the world who isn’t Steve Jobs.

If Apple lies in a press release, or if its CEO lies in an on-the-record statement, the company has problems. But if everything was off the record, who’s to know? Or maybe you don’t exactly lie but you kind of hint at something and shade the conversation and lead someone to believe something even without explicitly saying that thing. 

If down the road it turns out Steve was lying and someone from the SEC or some lawyer in a civil suit wants to find out what was said in that conversation, they’ll have to subpoena Joe Nocera, and the New York Times will fight that request. Even if Joe Nocera wants to tell the world what Steve Jobs told him, he can’t. He made a deal. He went off the record. Even if Steve turns out to be lying, Joe Nocera is stuck.

Thus Steve Jobs gets to protect his stock price and give Wall Street the message that he wants them to hear, and should any of this turn out not to be true, well, Steve and Apple now have Joe Nocera and the legal department of the New York Times to act as their ally and firewall.

Nice work, Joe Nocera. You’ve now become part of Apple’s PR machine.

So why did Joe Nocera agree to be Steve’s patsy? Well, there was the element of surprise. Apple PR didn’t set up the interview in advance and give him time to think about the ground rules and what the implications might be. Instead they did an ambush. Companies do this sometimes. I’ve had it happen. It’s always a sign that something’s not kosher. The CEO calls you up out of the blue and you’re knocked back on your heels, scrambling to find a pen and wondering what you should ask, and when he says he wants to talk off the record or he’ll hang up right now you think, Jeez, I’ve got the guy on the phone, I might as well let him talk, I’ve got him halfway over the gunwale and into my net, I’m not going to risk throwing him back.

So maybe that’s a factor. But Joe Nocera is a veteran. He’s a pro. He knows that the ambush call is a sure sign that something’s not right. These calls are never legit. They’re never truly an impulse call. Guys like Jobs do not just pick up a phone and call a reporter on an impulse. Ever.

Nocera also knows why guys like Jobs play the off-the-record game, and he knows that it’s the surest way to get pwned by a source. So he had to be suspicious about Jobs calling him out of the blue and then demanding to speak off-the-record. It’s one thing when someone wants to go off the record to talk about someone else — their boss, their neighbor, their colleague. If someone inside the Bush administration wants to tell you something but doesn’t want to lose their job, that’s one thing.

But people who want to set the record straight about themselves don’t go off the record. They don’t need to. They don’t want to.

So why did Nocera agree to this lousy deal? My sense is he figured that while he might not get the truth, he would at least get something, and even if it’s all bullshit it would still be the hottest story of the week and put him ahead of everyone else on this and produce the one story that everyone else would be talking about for the next few days. In which case, okay, mission accomplished.

But the Nocera story doesn’t necessarily help shareholders, because, let’s remember something: We still haven’t heard Steve Jobs or anyone at Apple say, on the record, that Steve isn’t sick.

What we have heard is Apple telling the world first that Steve had a “common bug.” Now they’re walking back that lie, in baby steps. First we got a leaked story about surgery to John Markoff of the Times, and now an ambush off-the-record call to another Times columnist. Still nothing that can be attributed to Apple or for which Apple can be held responsible.

What we’ve also heard is Steve Dowling, the #2 flack at Apple, repeat the phrase, “Steve’s health is a private matter. Steve’s health is a private matter.” Dowling is a Boston native and a Red Sox fan and a former hack, which means he’s a good guy, but there he is, doing the Apple PR robot act, repeating the same sentence over and over again, something no other company does and something that irritates the shit out of reporters, which is, I think, why the Apple flacks do it.

One of the many ironies and contradictions about Apple is that while the company presents this hip, open, cool image to the world, its PR machine is the most secretive, locked-down, hard-assed and disciplined of any company in tech, including IBM. To get a sense of how weird IBM is, consider that one time, while I was waiting for an elevator with a flack at IBM headquarters in Armonk, I asked, just to pass the time, if the guy ever did any jogging. The guy gave me this panicked look and said, “Why do you want to know?”

Apple is even weirder than that. They’ve set new records for secrecy and obfuscation and arrogance among tech companies. More important, these are not amateurs. These are hardcore PR people. They know the impression they’re creating when their CEO does an ambush call and then demands to be off the record. Yet they did it. 

One unfortunate effect of Apple’s secrecy and general weirdness is that nobody believes anything Apple says anymore. I’d bet the hedge fund guys who were freaking out about Steve’s health last week are still freaking out. Maybe even more so.

Another unfortunate side effect of Apple’s secrecy is the message it sends to shareholders: Yes, we want your money, and no, we won’t tell you what’s going on inside our company. It’s a pretty common attitude in the Valley. Google has it. So does Yahoo. Facebook has it too, and they’re not even public yet.

The unfortunate thing about this arrogance is that no matter how hot a company may be, eventually every company stumbles. Someday Apple will need friends among the hackery. I’m not sure it will have any.