Apple's next PR chief faces task of finessing successful strategies

Don't expect Apple to move too far away from what works now; why would it?

PRWeek news editor Frank Washkuch
PRWeek news editor Frank Washkuch

The most popular PR parlor game of 2014 is guessing who will permanently replace Katie Cotton in the top comms role at Apple.

Similar to the development process for a new product, it’s been shrouded in mystery. Like extensive rumors of an Apple TV set, a list of PR luminaries have been said to be on flights to Cupertino. For example, former White House press secretary Jay Carney was rumored to be contemplating a move to Silicon Valley.

Apple shed some light on the process in October, when it named Steve Dowling, not a headline-grabbing name, but a former journalist and an 11-year Apple veteran, to take over the role on an interim basis. The announcement came amid speculation as to whether the company would roll back its long-held strategy of media-relations secrecy – some would call it paranoia – held since Steve Jobs’ return to Apple.

Its return to financial stability under Jobs, then its meteoric rise to domination of the tech sector through mobile products such as the iPhone, will be studied in business schools for years to come. However, Apple’s comms strategy is also complicated.

While many companies known for secrecy – Koch Industries comes immediately to mind – have embraced above-and below-the-line communications in recent years, covertness works for Apple.

Sure, it takes a beating in some insidery outlets from time to time for cozying up to only a few journalists or cowing other tech reporters to positive coverage with extremely limited access. But that hasn’t stopped devotees from lining up around the block days early for its products. Limited folding-chair space on the sidewalk is a problem many of its competitors would love to have.

That comes with a price, of course, especially when something goes wrong. Critics hammer the company during long periods between new product releases, and it’s increasingly the butt of jokes from competitors such as Samsung. KitKat’s "We don’t bend, we #break" tweet at the height of Bendgate was retweeted 1,000 times in one hour, despite the fact Apple said it had only been made aware of nine cases of "bending" iPhone 6 Plus models. Notably, when Twitter is the medium many savvy brands use to measure their marketing success, Apple concedes the space to others.

Don’t expect Apple to move too far away from what works now; why would it? But its next top comms person needs to decide what corners to round out. Don’t be surprised if they start with Twitter.  

Frank Washkuch is news editor of PRWeek. He can be contacted at frank.washkuch@prweek.com.

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