Silicon Insider: Apple Springs a Leak

Drop a dime on Apple Computer. Do it for James Madison.

Years ago, when I was just starting my career and working in public relations at Hewlett-Packard, we were bedeviled by a young reporter, just a few years older than me, who worked for an industry weekly tabloid called Electronic News.

EN was one of those trade publications that mostly reworked press releases and paid its young reporters peanuts while they rushed to add an item to their resume before moving on. In other words, it was a safe, predictable industry pub that would call for a quote or two, then run our stories pretty much the way we wrote them

Until Mark Simon came along. Simon, big and bluff as a rugby player, turned out to have a genius for the subtle and secretive art of digging out corporate insider information -- especially regarding upcoming company products. We'd work for weeks preparing an entire publicity campaign to roll out a new calculator or minicomputer or test and measurement instrument … and just days before the announcement, Simon would show up in our offices saying that he had already heard about the new model, would be going to print with it Monday morning (EN had the shortest lead time in the business) and would we care to make any comments?

Yeah, we wanted to make a few choice comments, but we bit our tongues. All that hard work out the window. Chaos would briefly reign. How much does Simon know? How do we minimize the damage? Damn him, where did he get his information?

Simon usually had all, or most of, the salient information on the story. We would try the old PR trick of spotting one factual error and then airily dismiss his entire story as inaccurate. "If you go to press with the information you have," we'd say, "you'll be made a fool of when the real story comes out."

But Simon usually just waved off our criticism. He knew he was close enough to make us squeal, to leave us sitting there with visions of division vice presidents shouting into the phone -- "How the hell did you let that story leak out? That's a $400 million product!" -- and our careers slipping away.

Getting the Scoop

Usually at that point Simon would offer a deal: he'd hold the story until the formal introduction date in exchange for an exclusive: at best a private interview with a key executive, at worst a full exclusive on the announcement itself. Sometimes, usually when the announcement wasn't particularly Earth-shattering, Simon would just go ahead and run the story, scooping the rest of the press. I think he did this partly for fun, and partly just to remind us of what he could do.

We hated Mark Simon at HP PR, yet at the same time we admired him. As far as we could prove, he always played fair, never stealing company documents or violating any non-discloser agreements (which he never would have signed, anyway).

Simon went on to become a distinguished political reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, just about the same time I left PR forever and became a newspaperman at the San Jose Mercury. Working for rival newspapers, though not on the same beat, Simon and I did occasionally cross paths in the years that followed. It was during one of those encounters that he finally told me his secrets for scooping new product announcements.

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