Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead

I must express my surprise at all the journalist tributes today for Katie Cotton, who suddenly left Apple. One post offers little praise. Over at Valleywag, Sam Biddle calls her the “queen of evil PR“. To me, she is Apple’s wicked witch of public relations. Did someone drop a house on Cotton, because the departure seems so sudden?

Putting context around the praise, “what no one will admit is that we were all afraid of her”, Sam writes. “Even at the end of Cotton’s reign, journalists are still in such a state of terror and awe they don’t dare speak openly about her reign of silence and smokescreen”.

Afraid? Terrorized? Not me. Spooked? Hell, yes. Apple has the worst public relations on the planet. There is little cooperation with journalists, but for those willing to write nicey-nice. The door shuts to everyone else. I abandoned all attempts contacting Apple PR years ago. Why waste the time when there is perpetual cone of silence? Mmmm, the last time I spoke with Katie Cotton was perhaps in 2008.

Sam understands:

Most of all, Katie Cotton’s tenure consisted of this cold distance from the tech press, presenting herself (and Apple) as an unfriendly, hermetically sealed monolith. She ignored calls, ignored emails, and even offered the vague promise of cordiality, only to yank away a possible meeting at the last moment. It was a commanding, charismatic meanness that helped cultivate Apple’s self-image of frigid supremacy.

And she always smiled while wiping blood from the blade.

Cotton was head of public relations in name, but her real role was something else. She was the protector of Steve Jobs’ ego. She kept the secrets that allowed him to take the stage and bask in awe and adulation when announcing “One More Thing”.

But in his last days, she was ineffective. Apple had too many third-party partners spread across the globe to contain the secrets. “No comment” was ineffective when so many leaks proved true.

If current CEO Tim Cook has any sense, and I believe he does, he will encourage fresh, friendly PR that uses selective disclosure rather than silence and fear to sustain relationships with the news media. On second thought, wicked ways may be more effective, because…

In fairness, Cotton deserves credit for something: Using behavior as gauge for her motivations, she understood that public relations and news reporting are adversarial relationships. Too often, PR reps try to work with journalists — to be friendly and cooperative. Cotton was neither. Apple PR is adversarial and treats most inquiries with “no comment” or provides self-serving response off the record.

The journalist’s job is to report the news. Cotton’s job was to stop the reporting. By saying nothing. Starve reporters of all information, until emaciated they would gleefully accept the slightest off-the-record morsel as feast — then serve it up to readers.

I wish more companies would take the “talk and we will fire you” approach to PR. It forces journalists to dig, to investigate rather than regurgitate PR spoon feeding. There is too much lazy reporting.

Mmmm. If journalists lived in fear of Cotton, what about Apple employees? Surely, somewhere inside the Cupertino campus some staffers dance like munchkins singing: “Ding, dong, the witch is dead!”

Photo Credit: Sam Howzit