Apple SVP Phil Schiller, Katie Cotton and Walt Mossberg.

Adam Tow / Re/code

Apple SVP Phil Schiller, Katie Cotton and Walt Mossberg.

Media


Today, Katie Cotton, perhaps the most powerful communications exec in tech, is retiring from Apple after 18 years.

As Code/red columnist John Paczkowski noted in reporting the departure earlier this month, the VP of worldwide corporate communications at Apple “helped steward the announcement of some of tech’s most transformative products” and “played a key role in shaping the mystique and exclusivity surrounding the Apple brand.”

This is true, largely under company co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs and, after he died two years ago, with current CEO Tim Cook; she was in control of how the tech giant rolled out everything from the iMac to the iPad. In this job, she has been tough, relentless and someone who most definitely and definitively put the interests of Apple and its business at the forefront of her communications strategy.

Sometimes that has been very controversial — largely around accusations that she lied during the protracted illness of co-founder and CEO Jobs, an issue over which she threw a pretty big cloak in what was an unusual and difficult situation. So, too, the options backdating scandal, another event where Cotton played very hard.

These and other less heated times sometimes resulted in less than copacetic encounters with some in the press, especially those who did not get the kind of access they wanted from a iconic company that has been at the center of a lot of the digital landscape over the past two decades.

Full disclosure: Both Walt Mossberg and I have always had a good relationship with Cotton, and Apple’s top leaders, most notably Jobs, have appeared at our events to talk about where Apple was headed. That includes this past week, with this Code Conference interview with Eddy Cue and Jimmy Iovine about the Beats deal.

This was obviously a beneficial thing for us over the years, but much terrific content and solid news were typically the result.

Still, despite what many of her detractors have written since the news of her departure came, I was never “scared” of her, any more than I fear any of the other hard-charging PR and communications execs I have encountered over the many years I have covered tech.

Was she aggressive? Sure. (So is Facebook’s Elliot Schrage.)

Did she sometimes ice our reporters out, ignore calls or reply with newsless answers? Sometimes. (Please meet Yahoo PR for much of my time covering it over the last two decades, especially under the current administration, which has not returned any of my calls in years.)

Did she try her hardest to showcase Apple and its products in a way that benefited it? Yep. (Paging Andreessen Horowitz’s Margit Wennmachers!)

Was she vocal when she did not like something we did? And how. (So are Microsoft’s Frank Shaw and Google’s Rachel Whetstone, both of whom can throw a pretty decent uppercut when they are not happy with something we have written.)

So what?

That kind of hard driving is part and parcel to the business, even if she was harder driving and, because of that, more successful than most. As she once told me when we talked about her outsize reputation in the tech press: “I am not here to make friends with reporters, I am here to put a light on and sell Apple products.”

It was no surprise that some used the opportunity of her exit to drag out their complaints in the kind of strange rage that has been — at least to my mind — oddly emotional and sometimes full of vitriol that would never be directed at a man who was similarly strong.

Consider the various words used to describe her: “Queen of Evil,” “wicked witch,” “cold and distant,” “frigid supremacy,” “queen bee” and, perhaps most obviously misogynistic, “dominatrix.” One time, horror of horrors, she hung up in anger on one reporter, who later took to the comments section of one recent story about her Apple departure and used astonishingly inappropriate words to describe anyone with whom she got along.

I only dwell on this because it’s both sad and disturbing that it’s still okay to talk about a high-ranking woman in this way and make it seem as if it was a cogent and valid commentary on her performance as a professional executive.

Recently, the same has been true around the firing of New York Times editor Jill Abramson, who was called “pushy” and “brusque.”

Get in line on this one — I can’t tell you how often I get called such things and much worse. In fact, after I wrote a piece about Abramson’s ouster, I got a plethora of emails from strong women who almost continually are on the receiving end of the same kind of thing at their workplace.

Guess what — most of us ladies have somehow managed to deal with it without having to throw back similar gutter invective.

To my mind — and you can accuse me of being in some fictional tank for Apple all you like — Cotton was a strong and unwavering proponent for the company and did that using techniques that she felt were best for the company and its charismatic leader, Jobs.

In fact, this is a very important point. We often forget she worked for most of her career for him, and this is also how he wanted the communications around Apple to be. Cotton was in close collaboration with Jobs who, more than most CEOs, had strong ideas about press relations and also direct lines to reporters.

This was sometimes a double-edged sword, because she worked for a tech legend who wanted exactly what he wanted when it came to media. But it was clear that both saw the press as extremely important, although largely for the opportunity to repeat and validate what they were saying. Neither suffered fools, and neither had much use for those with tough criticism or opposing views.

But it worked and brilliantly, as Apple has become pretty much the most successful brand on the planet under her tenure. Amazing launches, incredibly tightly held and presenting Apple in the best possible way.

Not impressed anyway with Cotton’s work? Still all foot-stomping pissed off because you did not get any PR love from her? Grow up.

Whether I agreed with her or not over the years, I always respected that Cotton was a person who did it her way. And, judging from Apple’s success, there is no way you can separate her work from contributing in a significant way over the years. That some say the products have shined in spite of her is a canard.

So let’s let her retire with some level of class, no matter how many bare-knuckled bouts were had. Ironically, Cotton leaves just ahead of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, where there are likely to be some big announcements that she would have been central to carefully and meticulously rolling out.

No longer. As Cotton told Re/code about leaving Apple: “This is hard for me. Apple is a part of my heart and soul.”

If you believe anything about Cotton, you can most certainly believe that.



15 comments
ThaddW
ThaddW

I really valued the insight expressed in this article. It was informative, balanced, and well reasoned. I've learned more about the role of public relations, and have some new thoughts to take away with me. 


A significant loss to Apple.

A respectful and excellent article.

ROLAND ESTRADA
ROLAND ESTRADA

Well said. I found it so repulsive when these sour-grapes, pissy, weasel journalists started chiming in with their snide remarks when Cotton's retirement was announced. Thanks for calling it out. 

JonnyEvans_cw
JonnyEvans_cw

It's all bogus, isn't it? I seem to recall dealing with Cotton twice, and while I admit i asked too much I do know it got considered. I have no problem with that. And, as a journalist, if PR won't give you the information you seek that's when you resort to actual journalism -- you know -- investigating a story. That so many journalists seem to see themselves as adjunct to company marketing departments is the sole reason they can take umbrage at PR failing to help them. Proper journalism means you ask someone else, dig around, find the story. The rest is ego-driven BS. Also -- do women need protecting? When they ask for protection, I guess, just like anyone. Do we need more women in tech? Indisputably.

SoldierX
SoldierX

Kara, women don't need to be protected or have a spokesperson explain to the world how capable and strong they are. They are that and more.  And of those quotes you were giving about all the bad things said about the very awesome Katie Cotton, how many were women? 


I am very tired of women and men pitted against each other. This drawing of lines in the sand between both. This war of what side is stronger and more capable than the other has to stop. You took the profile of a person who worked for one of the most secretive, successful, polarizing companies in the world and made it into an expose of how women in power are treated. Why did you do that Kara? 


I've watched a lot of your interviews with high profile tech companies. I enjoyed them. I love how you respect the person in front of you while getting to the heart of the matter. Yet, you don't need to incite division between men and women. Higher ground must always be taken in the cesspool of vitriol. You did not take the higher ground. There is so much more to say about this. It is a growing problem. 


Believe me, I understand the plight of down trodden people in companies, countries and cultures the world over. And I understand the history of inequality. Katie Cotton has not spoken on these things herself. She has not asked for someone to come to her aid. She is not down trodden as far as we know. And until she says otherwise, has not been treated unfairly. Please repair the destruction you have wrought with your derisive exposition on the mistreatment of women. You should be talking about the mistreatment of people by people. 

Gina
Gina

It always amazes me - the vitriol that arises when a powerful woman moves on. Women in tech get to the top by holding their own - that requires being tough and tenacious. I don't know Katie but she clearly did her job brilliantly or she would have never survived at Apple. I doubt the naysayers have been as successful.

Blissmonkey
Blissmonkey

@SoldierX @SoldierX  Kara speaks to the experience of women in positions of influence in the media and it's appropriate to discuss as a topic that's current and relevant.


To broach the topic is to shed light upon it.  Doing so, to any topic where there's unfairness, brings us closer to something more fair; to talk about her experiences of how there's a lack of balance between how men and women are treated in the media brings us closer to realizing balance.


To criticize someone for trying to bring fairness and balance to a subject where both are needed is something to think about.  To prefer not to discuss it allows the problem to perpetuate, and even grow stronger.  So, the question remains: why prevent bringing about fairness and balance where it's needed?


Considering your difficulty with the content of the article, perhaps it's best the author didn't mention on average women earn .70 where men earn 1.00 while holding down the same position, doing the same job.  Heaven forbid anything should be discussed that might challenge the status quo, or the world of privilege men enjoy at the cost of slightly over 50% of the human race.


That would have been a deadly blow to all that's just in the world.

ex2bot
ex2bot

Kara's point was that women in power are criticized differently than if it had been a man in the same place, the implication being they (women) shouldn't be in those positions of power. It's against their (female) nature.

Seems like you really misunderstood the article. That, or you derive pleasure by shooting Kara down with your comment.

SoldierX
SoldierX

@Gina This an example of the incendiary nature of Kara's article. She is a wonderful person. As I suspect you are too. Katie Cotton is very awesome in a lot of ways. I loved how she protected Steve Jobs, Apple Inc and Apple Culture. And until she speaks of injustice herself, I believe it is out of place for Kara to suggest otherwise.

JonnyEvans_cw
JonnyEvans_cw

@VernonDozier Oh I'm sick to my neck of people saying Apple's success is based on "marketing". As global firms go it spends a minnow's crutch on advertising, relative to the size of its business. As an accusation to say Apples success is based on advertising is pure drivel.

Apple's success is based on making the best available products, and on creating unmatched customer satisfaction.

That's not marketing, That's delivering on the promise of your marketing.

If only more companies would deliver on the promises they sell, or make promises they intended to keep. Indeed, the world would also be better if politicians did the same -- focus on delivering on their promises and creating best in class solutions that left the world population satisfied.

Meh. I feel like I'm preaching to myself, but its time the Apple is marketing BS got shut down. 

steeepingtea
steeepingtea

@SoldierX @Gina I can understand why you see her article as "incendiary." This war of "men vs. women," can be very disheartening when we are all human beings and what not. But this "war" between men and women is a wrong perception. This actually isn't a war between men and women and Kara has never tried to make it one.


You asked her if men or women journalists made those comments. If Kara answered that question with "men and women made those insulting comments" then, it will be seen as discrediting the inequality Kara points out in this article. The logic behind a gender war is: since, women criticized a fellow women, the issue must be invalid. That is not what Kara is getting at. And that isn't what feminism is about. Kara doesn't mention that MEN made those insulting comments. She simply says that the media and society, as a whole, places greater scrutiny and judgement on women leaders. It's not a war against men or women, it's a fight for equality and civil rights.


This article isn't incendiary. Instead, it's the actions and differences that Kara has and continues to call out that are truly incendiary. They could be actions by men or women. But these actions are rooted in an inequality between men and women. The different way men and women professionals are treated is appalling. And this difference is incendiary because it is unwelcome.


Had Kara written this article, and the things she called out to be untrue or in bad faith, the seemingly "incendiary" would be deemed foolish. And Kara seen as possibly stupid or mad.


Unfortunately, Kara isn't stupid or mad. She has a platform and an audience. As such, she is speaking out against the injustices. Kara's act isn't one of "protection" for Katie Cotton or women. This isn't a defensive move, it's offensive. There are men and women on both sides of the fight.

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