Dowling could kick-start a more open era at Apple

Former CNBC journalist Steve Dowling has stepped up from being Katie Cotton's number two - at least in the short term.

Critics and rivals mocked Apple for the bendable iPhone 6 Plus.
Critics and rivals mocked Apple for the bendable iPhone 6 Plus.

Apple has moved to stem speculation about who will replace the iconic tech company’s long-term comms guru Katie Cotton, who left her VP of worldwide corporate communications role in May.

Steve Dowling, formerly senior director of corporate PR, has been promoted to replace 18-year Apple veteran Cotton on an interim basis, reporting directly to CEO Tim Cook. He is not the worldwide big hitter some expected to be parachuted in for this job, but he could be a smart play.

Apple is notoriously publicity-shy in terms of proactive communication with its publics. But if there was one exec in its comms team who occasionally threw the media a bone it was Dowling, who would at least respond and give you the odd quote and a bit of background, even if it wasn’t always particularly illuminating.

The fact Cotton left with no specific replacement in place suggests it wasn’t a completely planned departure, as does the length of time it has taken Apple to replace her. There has been widespread speculation about several high-profile individuals who may have been in the frame for the role, including former White House press secretary Jay Carney.

The appointment of former CNBC journalist Dowling is only an interim one, but if he shines in that capacity there has to be a chance he can step up to this crucial position on a permanent basis.

Apple is always in the news, but the last couple of months have particularly demonstrated the need for it to have a firm hand on the communications tiller. From "bendgate" to the botched launch of iOS 8 to the furor around the hacking into celebrities’ iCloud accounts to Tim Cook’s inaugural launch of new products and services, including Apple Watch and Apple Pay.

Bendgate came about when German tech magazine Computer Bild decided to test out consumer claims that it was possible to bend the newly launched iPhone 6 Plus, by producing a video of a live experiment conducted by editor Axel Telzerow.

Telzerow seemed to bend the phone with relative ease, which made it "kaput," and the video attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of online viewers. Apple wasn’t amused, and its German PR team contacted Computer Bild to say it would no longer be providing it with test devices or invitations to official events: all a bit petty, but pretty much in line with Apple’s traditional comms policies.

Those policies were established and evolved under Cotton’s leadership, a time when Steve Jobs effectively acted as Apple’s chief communications officer, especially in terms of negotiating front-cover features with the likes of Time magazine.

When Jobs died in 2011 Golin’s CEO Fred Cook described to PRWeek how Jobs would be his own PR representative, reach out to major media outlets, and pitch them himself.

Cook described Jobs as "the smartest CEO about PR I've ever met," while conceding that, unsurprisingly, he was a tough client and wasn't always the easiest person to work with. But he attributed the latter fact to his passion and level of perfection.

Jobs wouldn’t have been happy if he’d seen the Computer Bild video either, but he would have wanted to find out what the problem was and how to fix it – or he would have ensured his product never left the factory with such a defect. The first layer of great communication starts with a great product, and Jobs understood that intrinsically.

Tim Cook certainly has a different, more collaborative style than his legendary predecessor, which may have been part of the reason behind Cotton’s departure, and it is to be hoped this more collaborative style will also extend through Dowling and into a more constructive relationship with the media.

No-one expects Apple to completely rip up its communications and marketing playbook, but a spirit of more openness, no matter how slight, will help Cook impose his personality on the post-Jobs Apple landscape and smooth the passage of a crucial few months in terms of launching his first tranche of new products since the iconic founder passed away.

Dowling may well turn out to be purely an interim appointment, but he still has the opportunity to help usher in a new era of transparency at Apple.

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