(Wired) -- Most Fortune 500 CEOs are about as accessible as Kim Jong Il, but Apple CEO Steve Jobs has been breaking the mold. He's sent terse e-mail replies to more than a dozen customer inquiries -- and one journalist -- in the past few months.
It's not that he's become unusually friendly. Rather, the legendary entrepreneur is carefully reinventing his role as CEO.
Jobs typically shies away from the public spotlight, but with these e-mails he has been transforming his public persona into that of a leader who's well-connected with his followers, as opposed to a man running a business, says Brian Solis, a new-media branding and public relations expert.
"What he is trying to do is strategically pick the right people that are going to literally spread his word verbatim," Solis said. "With just one e-mail he's able to talk to the entire world."
Historically, Jobs has been selective about the media outlets he communicates with. His favorites tend to be The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. And in the past, there have been a few occasions where Jobs sent short e-mails in response to customers' questions. But around the time the iPad launched, the CEO began shooting out e-mails to customers almost every week.
Like any normal human being, Jobs may simply be eager to talk about his beloved pet projects. But even if that's true, there's a strategy behind Jobs' e-mail spree, said Steve Rubel, a senior vice president of Edelman Digital, the world's largest independent PR firm.
Rubel explained that Apple is one of the only companies to operate with a centralized "command-and-control model." Because Apple is not in a position to communicate with tools such as Twitter or Facebook, Jobs' e-mails are proving an effective means to address an enormous community of consumers.
"They're more open than the way they were before," Rubel said. "I wouldn't define Apple as open, but more open. There's a big difference."
Jobs' out-of-the-blue responsiveness couldn't have come at a better time. For the past year-and-a-half, Apple has frequently been the target of negative press, thanks to its controversial App Store. And its recent legal tangle with Gizmodo over a lost iPhone prototype has inspired even mainstream comedians Jon Stewart and Ellen Degeneres to mock Apple for its increasingly nefarious public image.
Therefore, Jobs could very well be stepping in to take control when Apple needs it most.
Rubel added that it was unlikely Jobs' PR team was helping him draft his e-mails, because they come off as very frank and human.
"They're off the cuff, but he's a marketing genius, though," Rubel said. "He's responding to the right e-mails at the right time, based on what he thinks is right."
Solis explained that by responding to e-mails, Jobs is demonstrating Apple's nimbleness by showing the company is paying attention to the world's needs, even at a CEO level.
Jobs is responding to questions to steer perceptions by setting the record straight, Solis said. One example was his response to a customer seething over Apple's delayed launch of the iPad overseas, alleging that Apple was "pulling the wool over the rest of the world's eyes."
"Are you nuts?" Jobs wrote. "We are doing the best we can. We need enough units to have a responsible and great launch."
And a second more recent example was Jobs' heated e-mail exchange with Gawker blogger Ryan Tate, who accused Apple of destroying digital freedom with the iPad and the App Store's stringent rules.
"Freedom of programs that steal your data," Jobs countered in his response. "Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom."
Such fortifying statements can act as a "slap in the back of the head" for inquirers, Solis said.
Last, Solis believes Apple is trying to make one message especially clear: Jobs is back, even though his medical leave last year had some analysts making grim predictions. Also, Jobs could be stepping in to mitigate some public relations issues relating especially to the controversial App Store, Solis said.
"I think part of him feels that during his absence, he felt Apple lost some of its footing during that time with public relations," Solis said. "Because of some of the challenges, he's taking the lead."
It's unlikely many other CEOs could execute Jobs' strategy, Rubel said, but he and Solis both agreed that Mark Zuckerberg might very well pull it off. The Facebook CEO recently responded to a blogger's e-mail in response to mounting criticism about the network's privacy flaws, and which he also addressed in a guest column printed by The Washington Post.
"Leaders are going to have to shed the filters they once hid behind, one of them being public relations, in order to lead," Solis said. "That's what people are looking for them to do. Facebook and Steve Jobs are leading communities into places they've never been before."
"Zuckerberg and Facebook already have lots of people out there speaking in very credible ways about them," Rubel added. "They have their blog, their Twitter account, they already are open."
Jobs did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment on his e-mail comments.
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