From Seeing Through the Illusion: Understanding Apple’s Mastery of the Media, a profile examining Apple’s PR strategy:
Two Heads In Place Of One
Months after announcing her departure, Katie Cotton has moved on from Apple, according to a person close to the former executive. She is no longer involved in the media strategy that she led for 18 years, and is not participating in recruiting a replacement. A source told us that “Cotton does not believe in searching for her own successor.” While Tim Cook is pondering the future of the department, Cotton left Apple PR in the hands of two longtime deputies: Steve Dowling and Natalie Kerris. The interim leaders (pictured left and top right, respectively) took over in May, and now both report directly to Cook.
Cotton’s “emotional” departure announcement in May indicated that Cook would oversee an internal and external search for a replacement, according to people briefed on the process. It’s somewhat surprising that an 18-year veteran of Apple would abruptly depart the firm with no successor in place, and have no obvious say in who her replacement may be. Considering that Cotton left Apple the work day before WWDC, Apple’s largest event of the year, and also that she technically remains an Apple employee (following Scott Forstall, who served as an “advisor” for a few months short of a year following his departure), evidence suggests that she did not leave entirely of her own accord.
Even without Cotton at the helm, Apple’s PR department continues to move forward. As an Apple employee said, “the team is still rolling and cranking; there’s still an overall strategy.” But the team is being steered by two executives with different expertise and approaches. Dowling ran the Corporate Communications team for the last decade. He joined Apple’s PR team in 2003 after serving as CNBC’s Silicon Valley Bureau Chief since 2000, and Washington Bureau Chief from 1995 to 2000.
Dowling’s near decade of experience as a journalist gives him insight into how today’s Apple reporters function. A journalist who covers Apple says that Dowling frequently makes the phone calls himself to influential reporters to provide background information and comment on certain stories. “He’ll only give you what he planned to say when you agreed to talk, and no more,” the journalist said, “he’s a journalist at heart, [and] knows the game.” Several reporters on the Apple beat praised his laid back demeanor and apparently genuine sense of kindness.
This extends to his work within Apple’s doors. Dowling holds a weekly meeting to discuss relevant topics with the top PR members, rotating between Tuesdays and Thursdays. Apple PR employees say that they learn enough from the meetings to actually take notes. He additionally takes time to receive feedback on his reports and discuss how Apple PR could improve. People close to Dowling also say that the executive doesn’t play Cotton-like power games, but note that “he could improve his mentoring and leadership skills versus mostly focusing on just getting the work done himself.”
Some sources opined that Dowling is “smarter than Katie,” and suggested that he would be a good fit to replace her. Dowling is said to be “close” friends with Tim Cook, and Cook is said to have referred to Dowling as such during internal meetings. Cook and Dowling are often seen together, in part because of Apple’s policy of using PR staff to guard key executives. Dowling’s high place in Apple’s hierarchy has been demonstrated by his name often appearing alongside Katie Cotton’s on critical announcements such as Steve Jobs’s resignation and the firing of Scott Forstall.
Cotton’s other replacement, Natalie Kerris, has mostly led PR and Communications for flagship Apple products such as the iPhone since joining Apple in 2001. Although our sources opined that Dowling could serve as more of an actual successor to Cotton, current and former Apple journalists praised Kerris for her blunt approach; one reporter said that Kerris will skip formalities and PR jargon and formalities to cut to the chase. We were told that while Kerris is “very smart,” there is “sort of a drama element to her” that makes her like “Cotton Jr.” One source said that “it would likely be more of the same [as during Katie’s era] if Nat completely took over.” If Cook is truly seeking a refreshed approach to PR at Apple, Kerris would be less likely to get the top job.
Both Kerris and Dowling are said to be individually lobbying to take Cotton’s place, which makes recent reports about Apple’s consideration of former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney for the job all the more interesting. After the consistently-reliable Re/code first reported that Carney was “bandied” about in connection to the open Apple position, The Loop‘s Jim Dalrymple claimed that this was not true. Sources say that it was Kerris who told Dalrymple and other reporters that the claims of Carney’s consideration were false. Since Carney was exiting the world’s most important and high-profile PR job and in talks with multiple technology companies, Apple would be irresponsible to have not considered Carney in some capacity, so it’s unclear why anyone at the company would actively deny the report.