Katie Cotton

Long-time Apple PR chief Katie Cotton is retiring. John Paczkowski broke the news:

She’s long been among the company’s most powerful executives and played a key role in shaping the mystique and exclusivity surrounding the Apple brand. Her departure from Apple is a milestone. “Katie has given her all to this company for over 18 years,” Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said in a statement. “She has wanted to spend time with her children for some time now. We are really going to miss her.” Reached for comment, Cotton told Code/red her decision to leave Apple was among the most difficult of her career. “This is hard for me,” she said. “Apple is a part of my heart and soul.”

Back in July 2010, I was witness to one of Apple’s few true PR crises in recent history: iPhone 4 “Antennagate”. Apple, famously, works hard to control the narrative surrounding its product releases, and generally does so successfully. But the Antennagate story was spinning out of control: from “the iPhone 4 can lose signal strength if held in certain ways” to “the iPhone 4 can’t make phone calls and might need to be recalled”. It was nonsense, but needed to be refuted. Nipping this thing in the bud was important enough that Steve Jobs flew back early from a vacation in Hawaii.

The event was held on a Friday, which itself is unusual. It was a “this thing can’t wait until Monday” situation — a fire that needed to be put out before it spread. Non-emergency press conferences are not held on Fridays.

An Apple PR rep had been in contact with me a few days prior, to ask if I’d be interested and available for a possible press event later in the week. At the time, I was suffering from a lingering summer cold, which made the prospect of a transcontinental flight even less appealing than usual. But I’m no malingerer, and so though I mentioned my cold, I said I’d almost certainly be in shape to travel by the end of the week. This seemed like something I wouldn’t want to miss (and I was right).

The final, “OK, it’s on, and you’re invited if you can make it” didn’t come until Thursday afternoon ET — a mere 18 hours before the event. I booked a flight on Priceline at 3p, and three hours later I was in the air, en route from Philly to SFO.1

The press list for the event was unusually small — by far the least-attended Apple event I’ve ever witnessed. You can see in the video of the event that Apple’s on-campus Town Hall auditorium wasn’t nearly filled to capacity, and Town Hall is a relatively small venue. Every other Apple media event I’ve attended has been standing room only.

I was wearing a large SLR camera on a strap around my neck. As I filed in to find a seat, I was offered a choice: if I wanted to take photos during the event, I could sit toward the back; if I were willing to forgo taking photos, I could sit up front in the third row. I only had my camera with me on a lark — the advantages of publishing a website that runs photographs only rarely — so I took the seat in the third row. The first two rows, as usual, were occupied by senior Apple executives and employees.

As I took my seat, Katie Cotton, sitting in the second row, smiled and greeted me. “Hi John, glad you could make it. How’s the cold?”

I was feeling fine, the cold not much more than a memory at that point, and told her so. But I had to ask, laughing, “How did you even know I had a cold?”

Before she could answer, Greg Joswiak, sitting directly in front of me, turned around. “John, Katie knows everything.”

Most big corporations employ outside PR agencies. Not Apple. Apple’s internal public relations team is itself a world-class agency. That team was built entirely under Cotton’s leadership.

Cotton was never pictured on Apple’s executive leadership page, but my impression has long been that she was one of the very handful of most influential executives at the company. It is difficult to find a photograph of Steve Jobs or Tim Cook at a press event in which she is not at their side. Paczkowski put it well: Katie Cotton “played a key role in shaping the mystique and exclusivity surrounding the Apple brand.”

The times, they are a-changin’.

  1. Apple does not cover travel expenses for the media; and even if they offered to, I wouldn’t accept it. Booked almost literally at the last minute, this flight cost just under $1600 for a coach seat on a non-stop United flight, with a return trip on Frontier with a layover in Denver. Brutal — but well worth it for a rare glimpse at Apple on its heels. ↩︎