All eyes on Cupertino as Apple advances comms leader search

Experts disagree on the extent to which a new comms leader at Apple will result in a friendlier, more transparent company.

Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted this photo after announcing the company had acquired Beats Electronics.
Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted this photo after announcing the company had acquired Beats Electronics.

Observers disagree on whether Apple will relax its longtime tight-lipped approach to communications when it hires a replacement for the departed Katie Cotton. Some say the strategy shift would be smart because of the company’s growing image challenges and its evolving business model.

Yet others counter that Apple will not only stick to the comms strategy that has worked so well in the past, but become even more guarded and secretive, despite various internal changes.

Apple’s seasoned PR chief Katie Cotton stepped down on May 30, after announcing her retirement after nearly two decades at the company earlier in the month. CFO Peter Oppenheimer also plans to retire in September and human interface director Greg Christie will also exit at the end of the year.

Re/code reported earlier this week that the external search to replace Cotton is being led by chief executive Tim Cook himself, who wants someone who can "put a friendly, more approachable face on Apple’s PR efforts."

Does that mean Apple will be more forthcoming with stakeholders such as the media, investors, developers, and customers? Internal and external factors could drive the Cupertino, California-based company to that conclusion.

Affect president Sandra Fathi says chief among those influences is the fact that the Apple brand is not as revered as it once was. Two weeks ago, Google usurped Apple on BrandZ’s Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands ranking after Apple was at the top of the list for three consecutive years.

"The reign of Steve Jobs was one marked with a lot of secrecy and mystique – he kept things so close to the vest – but after his passing, stories started to come out that maybe it wasn’t a great company with incredible design and creativity, but one operated like a dictatorship," says Fathi. "So Apple has gone from this adored, put-on-a-pedestal kind of company to one that is seen as having a lot of negative secrets, especially in the developer arena."

A major factor in Apple’s changing business model is its recent acquisition of Beats Electronics, which makes high-end headphones and speakers and operates a subscription music-streaming service. The deal left many followers of Apple scratching their heads at possible changes to the company’s strategy. For instance, Apple had not previously marketed products outside of its own brand, though it says it will keep the Beats branding and logo in existence for the foreseeable future.

"You can’t communicate about all of these products just through select industry events, which is what they have typically done with their communications," says Lucy Allen, EVP and chief strategy officer at Lewis PR. "Apple now needs a different approach for its brand."

She notes that the company is also facing more competition.
"I don’t think this willingness to open up is being done out of weakness, although there may be an aspect of that, but more likely around the fact that the role of communications is changing as Apple is changing," Allen explains.

Apple, along with Google, Intel, and Adobe, also recently lost a bid to avoid a trial in a class action lawsuit that began in 2011, alleging those companies tried to keep wages down by agreeing not to recruit each other’s employees.

"Apple is at a time when it needs to reinvent itself," Fathi adds. "So while I don’t think the secrecy around its products will change, I believe they will be much more open about how they operate and give more senior Apple folks a voice in the public. It won’t be just the product speaking for itself."

Given that, she suspects whoever takes on the PR chief role "will likely have more freedom than the person before. It will be an exciting opportunity."

Meghan Gardner, VP of the recently opened Boston office of UK tech PR firm Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, agrees that the company needs a shift in strategy. "Apple used to engage with audiences in a way that was like a guru addressing his disciples rather than a brand connecting with its fans," she says. "[But now] it needs to start tapping more of its people to engage with fans and potential customers. To me, there is a transition underway at Apple toward brand building by, not a single visionary, but a team of visionaries who will convey where Apple is going in the future."

That shift in strategy would mimic the open nature of its retail stores, Gardner adds. It plans to add 30 more stores this year, giving it about 450 worldwide.

"This is also a company that has revolutionized the technology shopping experience – with stores that are friendly and open," she explains. "It would be authentic for Apple to open up its communications as well, since that matches with how the brand is now experienced at retail."

Nicole Messier-Marino, VP of the technology practice at Pan Communications and former leader of corporate communications at enterprise cloud company Apprenda, also notes that Apple has expanded its business into markets that demand more frequent and open communications.

"While Apple is still predominantly a consumer-based company, it has been having a ton of traction on the enterprise side," she notes, adding that its products have reached record-level adoption in enterprises. "When you are selling to the b-to-b market, there is an expectation and trust that your hardware and software can be rolled out to a massive enterprise. And that will dictate a need for more open communications."

However, Henry Hwong, principal marketing strategist at SeriesC, the firm founded by former Apple communications leader Andy Cunningham, counters that Cotton’s departure "doesn’t necessarily indicate a real change in strategy for Apple."

He asserts that Apple’s culture of secrecy will likely remain intact, adding that Cook may be looking for someone who can "smooth out some of the rough edges of its PR approach" rather than make changes of real consequence to the brand’s PR strategy.

Hwong notes that Cook worked under Jobs for more than a decade, having joined the company in March 1998 as SVP of worldwide operations. In 2012, not long after he was named CEO, Cook said the company would be "doubling down" on product secrecy.

A recent case and point was Apple’s announcements at its Worldwide Developers Conference last week, where the company introduced a programming language called Swift. Though unexpected, the reveal was met with cheers from developers.

"The announcement was a real bombshell," Hwong says. "This kind of thing has been highly desired by programmers and developers, but if you look at all of the press in the run-up to the WWDC last week, the news was completely unanticipated."

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