Ben Boyd knows a little of what Apple CEO Tim Cook must be feeling.
When Boyd, a group president at Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm, was appointed to the firm’s executive committee in August, he made sure that the announcement explicitly stated that he is gay. In the days that followed, Boyd, 45, said he received dozens of e-mails from some of the firm’s more than 5,5000 employees worldwide saying they felt more likely to come out themselves after he had become the first openly gay member of the company’s leadership.
“The explicitness of what Tim Cook did is important for another ceiling has been broken,” Boyd said in a phone interview. “It’s an act of leadership. The example of being out is still the most powerful, impactful thing that anyone can do.”
Boyd doesn’t overstate the significance of Cook’s Thursday announcement. After all, Cook sits atop one of the world’s most innovative companies, Apple, which is based in Silicon Valley, a particularly progressive place in an already liberal state, California.
Nonetheless, Cook’s declaration makes him the first chief executive of a Fortune 500 U.S. corporation to announce that he is gay — and that is monumental, Boyd said.
Declaring that he “is proud to be gay,” Cook explained that “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.”
Cook’s announcement was not a surprise for those like Boyd who follow Apple and work high up in corporate America. But it’s certain to become a touchstone for many people, especially young people who struggle with going public about their sexual orientation, Boyd said, adding that his Southern Baptist father has stopped well short of accepting that he’s gay.
“Because the world is more accepting does not mean the world is easier for kids to be different,” said Boyd, who joined Edelman 9 years ago. “So role models like Tim Cook do matter. I hope that in my lifetime this is a non-issue, but the fact is that it remains one.”
For Apple, the decision to have Cook write a column for Bloomberg BusinessWeek was smart and bold, said Ronn Torossian, president of 5WPR, a New York-based public relations firm. Apple is already perceived as a trendsetter, and the announcement fits the company’s reputation.
Indeed, Cook recently blasted his home state of Alabama for failing to ensure the rights of gays and lesbians, much as it did for African-Americans who lived under the Jim Crow caste system for more than 100 years.
Cook’s announcement follows the efforts of former BP (BP – Get Report) CEO John Browne, who has made a campaign of attempting to persuade gay and lesbian executives to come out of the closet. Browne, author of The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business, was outed while still running the London-based oil company — and it drove him to resign.
Yet whether other chief executives will follow Cook remains less clear. Cook works in technology, a sector where innovation extends into social spheres. Apple has millions of young customers in urban areas, a cohort that is increasingly accepting of gays and lesbians.
It might not be so easy for the CEO of an oil company or big-box retail company to come out as gay or lesbian, said Torossian.
“This is a story because this is a very powerful CEO coming out,” Torossian said. “But it’s much easier for Cook to do it than others to do it, for the CEO of Apple than for a CEO of a bank or a car company. Tim Cook is also at the top of the food chain — he’s not a 35-year-old middle-manager making this announcement.”
“For that guy,” Torossian said. “It might be a lot harder.”