The PR implications of Tim Cook coming out

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Tim Cook made both history and conversation Thursday morning when he became the first openly gay Fortune 500 chief executive.

In an open letter published by Bloomberg Businessweek, Cook spoke out:

While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now. So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.

Support for Cook’s statement—including posts by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google executive Sundar Pichai—has been widespread, but many wonder why Cook chose to say anything at all about his sexual orientation, and why now.

One possible reason for a statement such as Cook’s is the PR benefit from executives’ taking a stance on hot-topic issues.

A study by Global Strategy Group shows 80 percent of Americans think corporations should take action and address societal issues, and 89 percent believe companies have the power to influence social change.

The study also found 56 percent of Americans think corporations should stand up for political beliefs—regardless of their controversial nature.

However, the reason Cook decided to forgo his privacy and announce his sexuality to the world had nothing to do with a strategic companywide PR move.

Cook came out because of the current reality of our society.

Although vast strides in LGBT acceptance have been made ever since Ellen DeGeneres’ historic “coming out” episode, 78 percent of gay teens are still teased and bullied in school. Starbucks can now produce commercials starring “RuPaul’s Drag Race” girls, but 42 percent of LGBT youth still say their communities are not accepting of their sexual orientation.

Cook isn’t the only gay executive, but he’s the first in a Fortune 500 to come out while still in charge. John Browne, former CEO of BP, said, “I wish I had been braver to come out earlier during my tenure as CEO of BP. I regret it to this day.”

“Life is about role models,” Rob Glaser, co-founder and chief executive of Real Networks, told The New York Times. “If you’re a 14-year-old kid and you find the CEO of one of the most iconic companies in the world happens to be gay, you’ll think, ‘There’s no limit on what I can do.’”

David Murray, editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, said, “A leader must know exactly when it is, why it is, how it is about him or her. And a leader must realize that those factors vary depending on the moment and the leader’s position in relation to the moment.”

Cook’s sexuality is not about Apple. Its stock price barely changed Thursday. But in this moment, Apple is very much about Cook. In his words:

I don’t consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others. So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.

Murray said, “He came to the conclusion—and likely brought Apple’s board members to the same point of view—that at this moment, it is his responsibility as a human being to use his influence on this particular issue.”

Anyone wondering why Cook spoke out need only look to his closing sentences.

“We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick,” he said. “This is my brick.”

That Cook didn’t come out as a publicity stunt, but as a humane act to help others, may have resulted in the best publicity Apple could get.

[RELATED: Learn how to speak to your audience at our November event for corporate communications.]

Beki Winchel is co-editor of PR Daily.

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