Adam Tow / Re/code
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.)
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.