May 7, 2014: Katie Cotton, the fearsome, much-admired head of Apple’s worldwide publicity machine, steps down from her VP post after 18 years with the company.
During her stint at Apple, Cotton worked in lockstep with Steve Jobs and proved instrumental in controlling the company’s portrayal in the press. Her departure provides one more reminder that the Jobs era is over at Apple.
Katie Cotton: An important player in Apple’s success
When you think of successful partnerships during the Jobs era at Apple, you likely think of ex-design chief Jony Ive or current CEO Tim Cook. Ive worked with Jobs to create a series of hit products. Cook worked with Jobs to make sure Apple could manufacture and ship those products in sufficient quantities.
Cotton’s role at Apple defined the company’s identity in another way. While Ive and Cook worked directly with the products, she controlled the way the world viewed Apple.
Before coming to Cupertino, she worked for a PR agency called KillerApp Communications, which handled some projects for Jobs’ NeXT. While Cotton never worked on the NeXT account, she did pick up contacts there. When Jobs arrived back at Apple in 1996, Cotton landed a job offer with the company.
Her work at Apple defined the weird anti-PR space the company cultivated. No one can say that Apple is bad at PR (that would be ridiculous). However, the company doesn’t try to be particularly good at it, either — at least not in the traditional way.
Plenty of PR executives endlessly flatter journalists to try to secure favorable coverage. Cotton was more than capable of pushing to get the publicity she wanted, but her job was also about courting only the coverage Apple wanted. Like Jobs, she prided herself on saying “no” to far more than she said “yes” to. It was a different school of PR, and it worked flawlessly.
How hardnosed PR helped shape Apple
Cotton proved particularly protective when it came to Jobs’ health problems. Her hardline tactics often served as a source of humor in the hilariously popular parody blog, The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs.
As Cotton once told journalist Kara Swisher, “I am not here to make friends with reporters, I am here to put a light on and sell Apple products.” (Swisher’s article about Cotton’s departure from Apple is well worth reading for something more nuanced than the countless stories denouncing the publicist as a “wicked witch” of Apple.)
When Cotton announced her retirement, Apple spokesman Steve Dowling described her impact.
“Katie has given her all to this company for over 18 years,” he wrote. “She has wanted to spend time with her children for some time now. We are really going to miss her.”
Cotton ultimately left Apple at the end of May 2014. Her departure supposedly marked the start of a kinder, gentler era of PR at the company. While this is arguably true, there’s also no doubt that the PR ethos Cotton instilled at Apple remains. Like Jobs, her influence continues long after she stepped down from her role.
R.I.P. Katie Cotton
Nearly a decade after leaving Apple, Cotton died on April 6, 2023, at the age of 57. The New York Times’ obituary said Cotton “built a culture of mystery by saying relatively little, if anything, to reporters.”
And tech journalist Walt Mossberg posted a Twitter thread paying tribute to Cotton and calling her a “formidable figure” in Cupertino.
“Katie brilliantly led the media strategy for the historic run of big products during Jobs’s second tenure running Apple,” he wrote. “She was a key partner to Steve Jobs, who trusted her judgement.”
— Walt Mossberg (@waltmossberg) April 10, 2023