From Seeing Through the Illusion: Understanding Apple’s Mastery of the Media, a profile examining Apple’s PR strategy:
While Apple PR portrayed former VP of Worldwide Corporate Communications Katie Cotton’s departure as a way for the executive to spend more time with her children, the true reason for her departure more likely was Tim Cook’s different vision for Apple’s future public-facing appearances.
As a former member of Apple’s PR team recounted, Cotton was the company’s “ace in the hole” for journalists. Known to control all media access for Apple, Cotton’s power and attitude made some journalists fear that their access to Apple events and early product briefings would be cut off. These are two privileges that, if taken away, could negatively alter a writer’s career. Internally, Cotton was described by some Apple employees as a “tyrant.” One Apple employee called Cotton’s reign a “battle for the front facing image of the company” and said that the executive ran the group like a “fiefdom.”
“I felt like we were in Kindergarten sometimes,” said another PR team member. Cotton’s control of the department extended to personally monitoring the times employees checked in for work and left the office each day. She expected employees would be “working all day from the office no matter what,” said a former employee. While not surprising for the head of a small but critical Apple division, this expectation was viewed as heartless when Cotton would not allow a new mother to work from home one day a week, recalled a former employee. The choice between Apple and family could not have been starker.
Cotton also is said to have had “targets” in her department. “One day someone could be the star, the next day that person could be at the bottom of the pile,” a former Apple PR employee said. “A lot of people would leave after a year or two under Katie; it was like walking on eggshells,” added that person. She “struck fear in hearts and took years off my life,” another person said. “But it was good for you, it was a real baptism for me,” that person added.
Even though Cotton terrified some journalists and employees, others offered reverence for Cotton and said they had learned a lot from her. Brian Lam recalls spotting an “extremely serious” looking Cotton at an Apple event “with the weight of the world on her shoulders,” but when she saw a reporter approaching, she put on a smile. “I saw the duality of her; people just did not f–k with her, she knows the power dynamics of everything between publications, individual reporters, and what reporters want,” Lam said.
Cotton mimicked many of Steve Jobs’s strategies as he resurrected Apple from near-bankruptcy in the late 1990s. Multiple former Apple PR team members suggested that Cotton’s controlling attitude stemmed from her relationship with Jobs. As one person put it, “if you work with Steve, you think you are a mini-Steve, but the truth is that you are not.” While Jobs was alive, employees “could put up with the B.S., but post-Steve, it was not worth it anymore,” another PR person said, “we got exhausted from it.” There was an “exodus” in Apple PR after Jobs died in late-2011, explained multiple current and former Apple employees, mirroring departures that made bigger headlines in other departments.
Cotton was so close to Jobs that many PR team members believed she would depart Apple following Jobs’s resignation and death. “Katie was created in Steve’s image,” a PR person said, and drew power from Jobs’ implicit approval. With Jobs no longer around and a somewhat gentler Tim Cook in charge, the fear that Cotton instilled within her own organization no longer worked. Current and former employees told us that the only surprising thing about Cotton’s departure is that it took nearly three years after Jobs died.
When Tim Cook officially took the reins at Apple in late 2011, “he started informing the PR group that Apple needs to become a friendlier company,” both internally and in the public’s eye. The message was clear, but it was unclear whether Cotton would be able to meet that expectation. As an Apple employee said, “is Tim going to [still] want Katie, an attack dog with Steve’s DNA” at the helm of the company’s image? Cook opened Apple up to the Fair Labor Association, began to match employee charitable contributions, and gradually made not only himself but also other top executives available for magazine interviews. Change was afoot at Apple, and Cook wasn’t playing by all of the established rules.