When Warren Buffett disclosed his prostate cancer, the pundits from Bloomberg, CNBC, Forbes, Reuters, and Slate, among others, began a harsh comparison.
Which one got it right: Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway's CEO, or Steve Jobs, the late chief of Apple?
The waters surrounding CEO health are tricky to navigate, especially when dealing with the leader of a well-followed publicly held entity. It's trickier when a legend is involved. Fortunately, there's fiduciary responsibility that dictates what ought to be done.
We know that cancer of the prostate can be dealt fully when caught early; as is the case with Buffett. He stated his condition won't impact fulfilling his CEO duties.
Some suggested Buffett's announcement was a ploy to divert attention from the lack of a succession plan at Berkshire Hathaway. That seems a more meaningful issue to explore and debate than who conveyed a personal health challenge “correctly.”
Jobs battled pancreatic cancer – which has a 4% five-year survival rate after diagnosis – for seven years. The relative five-year survival rate for prostate cancer is 100%.
When dealing with a company's leadership team, its stakeholders or reporters about a health issue its chief is facing, consider the individual. Is there a full understanding of how he feels about this matter? What do the medical experts say about the prognosis? As with any crisis, full disclosure of the facts lets an organization return promptly to business-as-usual.
Instead of how the health disclosures were made, would it not have been better to use Buffet's news as a reason to delve into the differences in the two men; now united by cancer.
Anyone who's read Walter Issacson's biography of Jobs knows he was an extremely private person and something of a control freak. Reports on his death noted it was a company decision not to disclose the illness. That may have reflected Jobs' ability to control his board. It may have been classic Jobs in that he did not want to give his competition an edge.
Buffett is known for self-deprecating humor, approachability, and plain-spoken common sense. His cordial dealings with the media have been as much about investment education as advancing his own interests. Jobs exhibited a sense of humor and a sharp temper. Buffett always has his emotions under control. Jobs' dealings with the media, often via late night calls to reporters, were all about Apple and not always conducted in a diplomatic manner.
As a PR practitioner, the need to strike a balance between practical thinking and empathy for the person facing a health challenge cannot be understated. That might alter the way the pundits address the issue.
Steve Hoechster is CMO of Aithent.