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Email Replies: A Hard Lesson at Steve Jobs’ Expense

This past week I was reminded of worst practices for email, unfortunately at Steve Jobs' expense. My Comcast Internet featured a video from Good Morning, America, an ABC news show. The video cobbled together a story of email gone wrong between Apple CEO Steve Jobs and a college journalism student.

Here is the short version: The student phoned and emailed Apple's media relations department with a question about the use of an Apple product in higher education. She received no reply, and because she needed the information for a journalism assignment, she emailed Mr. Jobs directly. According to Good Morning, America, Mr. Jobs' three–yes, three!–emails to the student comprised the statements below.

  1. "Our goals do not include helping you get a good grade. Sorry."
  2. "We have over 300 million users, and we can't respond to their requests unless they involve a problem of some kind. Sorry."
  3. "Please leave us alone."

It was the final message, "Please leave us alone," that drew the most ridicule in the video.

I am sorry to see a business leader looking bad in the media. But at least we can take away these lessons:

  • Do not put anything in email that you would be embarrassed to see on Good Morning, America or on everyone's computer.
  • Do not communicate with a customer or a potential customer when you don't have the time or inclination to do it well.
  • Do not tell customers or potential customers to leave you alone. What if they all did?

I feel a degree of empathy with Apple and Steve Jobs. Although Apple is a huge successful company and Syntax Training is a tiny successful company, we too receive email we don't have the time or staff to answer. We end up doing the best we can to send personalized automatic messages and to try to keep up. Yet we know some email just doesn't get answered, and we hope people will try again when messages fall into the proverbial cracks in our email system.

What lessons do you glean from Mr. Jobs' off-message message? And do you reply to all your non-spam email? Please share your insights here, and I will do my best to respond!

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

12 comments on “Email Replies: A Hard Lesson at Steve Jobs’ Expense”

  • Hi Lynn. When I heard the story, my immediate reaction was that Steve Jobs has someone screening his email for him.

    You hope he did not reply like that. If it was an administrative assistant that underscores the importance of employing someone who knows how to respond professionally.

    With the rise of social media, many businesses are experiencing the ramifications of someone representing their company, their brand, in a less than professional manner.

  • Hi, Lynn. I think the take-away lessons you identified are excellent. I found the student’s email, which was lengthy and focused on the benefits that Apple’s reply would provide to her (a good grade), rather than identifying any compelling reason for Apple to provide the requested quote.

    I think the student’s e-mail is a good counter-example to previous advice you have given on how to write effective e-mails. How might the student have improved her e-mail to get a more favorable response? Your input on this would be helpful to those of us who need to catch the eye of busy execs. Thanks!

  • Hi, Cathy. The media seemed to assume that Steve Jobs himself wrote those messages. I believe they made that assumption because he is known to reply to random emails.

    Do you think an admin. would reply as Steve Jobs? That approach certainly would require that the admin present the executive well!

    Whatever took place, it bombed.

    I like your point about the ramifications of social media. The problems with social media are the same as the age-old problems of the telephone, increased exponentially.

    Thanks for sharing!


  • Hi, Matt. Thanks for bringing up the relative effectiveness of the student’s emails. I have not read her initial emails to media relations. If I can track them down easily, I will make recommendations.


  • Thank you, Lynn.

    This is certainly a wake up call to all dealing with Customers. A thoughtless line in a single email can ruin the image a company has built throughout years.

    I find Mr. Job’s answers absolutely inappropriate for a company like Apple. I will not be able to look at them in the same way I used to. This annoying student could be the CEO of their best customer later on. Who knows?

  • Thanks for the great blog, Lynn.

    Just a tip — I believe your title should read “Email Replies: A Hard Lesson at Steve Jobs’s Expense” since the word Jobs here is his surname, not a plural noun.

  • Hi, Claudia. I love your suggestion that the student is a potential future CEO of Apple’s best customer. That would be a nice irony.

    I still think positively about Apple products. But I am taking Steve Jobs off a pedestal. He has reminded us of his humanness.


  • Hi, Rob. I purposefully chose the possessive form “Steve Jobs’ Expense.” I pronounce it as one syllable, so I chose the “Associated Press (AP) Stylebook” style.

    Other examples from “AP” are:

    Achilles’ heel
    Jesus’ life
    Descartes’ theories

    I normally use the s’s form, but I found it awkward with the name Jobs.

    Now I guess I am putting Steve Jobs in the same class as a mythic Greek hero, a prophet, and a philosopher!

    Thanks for raising the issue.


  • Hi, Diane. Actually I know in my heart it should be “email.” The hyphen is just not necessary.

    You are right that virtually all stylebooks promote “e-mail.” But “The Gregg Reference Manual” accepts “email,” as does “Garner’s Modern American Usage.”

    One day the hyphen will be gone from that word. Then I won’t have to update all my publications.

    Thanks for commenting!


  • Lynn:
    I enjoyed this post very much, and agree with your suggestions. Also it is great to see you commenting, with excellent responses to all comments. It is often difficult to keep up with comments!


  • Hi, Darleen. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    When I am traveling or have too many deadlines, I don’t have the opportunity to comment frequently or address each writer. But when I do have time, I like to communicate with each person.


Comments are closed.