After 18 years of spin, Katie Cotton, Apple's magnetically ruthless vice president of worldwide corporate communications, has left her job, and tributes from the tech press are pouring in. What no one will admit is that we were all afraid of her.
Recode described Cotton, one of Apple founder Steve Jobs' closest confidantes, as an "impresario" who "helped shape Apple's story." The Verge noted Cotton had "played a big role in shaping the tone of product launches and Apple's persona, from its struggles in the 90s through its huge hits through the 2000s." To the Wall Street Journal she was a "powerful gatekeeper." TechCrunch called her product launches "epic." CNNMoney quoted A-list Apple flack John Gruber's fond memories of Cotton.
But the real tribute to Cotton isn't merely that tech writers are praising her. It's that they're praising her despite despising her. 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.
CNNMoney's Gruber-quoting article was actually the site's second goodbye post to dear Katie—the first, by Philip Elmer-DeWitt, was pulled down quickly after appearing last night, and included a rare moment of frankness:
Cotton was the iconic Apple public relations professional. Fortune's Miguel Helft, who worked with her as the Apple beat reporter for the New York Times, describes her as "polite but rarely helpful."
"She was always cold and distant. And she complained to my editors that I didn't seem to love Apple's products as much as she hoped I would. We tried to explain that loving Apple products wasn't part of my job description, but that never registered."
That Cotton survived so long working for a client as difficult as Steve Jobs is something of a miracle. The official line is that she's leaving to spend more time with her family. And in her case — as the mother of twins — there might be some truth to that.
But it's also true that her job description changed when Steve Jobs died.
I haven't heard back from CNNMoney about the post's disappearance. But if you ask around, tech writers are more than happy to tell you about Cotton's brilliance. Anonymously, of course.
One writer I spoke with described her as "pure evil," a "ruthless enforcer for a cruel if brilliant autocrat. The ugly side of Steve Jobs personified." To another, she was "kind of wicked witchy." Another editor summed up his interactions with Cotton as only being brushed off and directed to an underling, if there was any response at all.
My former Gizmodo colleague Jesus Diaz, who weathered the worst of the storm over the blog's early purchase of an iPhone 4, recalls a rare returned phone call from Cotton, the "Darth Vader to Steve Jobs' emperor," after inquiring about Steve Jobs' health: "She was angry...fuming...so angry it was hard to understand her. And then she hung up on me."
It's easy to take these impressions as evidence that Cotton was terrible at her job—as at least one writer does:
I find it insane that she's held up as some kind of PR genius. Steve Jobs did everything at that company when it came to getting attention for their products. Apple's PR team does the least of any PR team in the world and could be replaced by a voicemail that says, "No comment" and "the suicides at the factory are down this month." She was a gate keeper to Jobs and had power in that role, but the idea that she's especially talented at PR and marketing is laughable.
But it's hard to argue with the evidence: Nearly two decades as the chief of communications for the most talked-about company on the planet. Sometimes imperious silence says a lot more than eager, deferential begging.
Like the Staatssicherheit before it, Apple PR operated on two main principles: silence and fear. Whereas some companies employ publicists or communications departments that will provide lengthy, whitewashed answers to questions, Apple went the other direction. Ask a tech reporter about covering Apple, and you'll get a sad, brief tale something like a Craigslist Missed Connection. Apple refuses to answer questions almost every single time a question is asked, and negging the media helped create the aura of Man-God worship that floated the Cult of Jobs and still buoys Apple's share price today. After all, if they refuse to talk, there must be something good they aren't talking about.
It also makes you wonder what the hell Katie Cotton actually did. How does a communications executive at a company that largely refuses to communicate spend her days? This was where Cotton's real skill came, in the second principle: fear. When Apple's mouthpiece wasn't copying and pasting non-responses (Google this sometime: "Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans"), it was demoralizing, abusing, and confusing the people whose job it is to write about Apple. That meant: ending interviews when they didn't go how Apple wanted.
That meant: outright lying about Steve Jobs' health when he was actually dying of cancer.
Even Gruber, in his farewell post to the adopted mother at Apple, mentions a superbly creepy Cotton moment as he waves a hanky goodbye:
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 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.
Cotton's departure is sudden and a bit mysterious, explained with a canned non-starter of an excuse: She wants "to spend time with her children." (Hmmm.) As the last few days have made clear, few reporters will ever badmouth her, lest they irk the wrathful corporate counterintelligence apparatus she spent 18 years building at Apple. (Or lest they receive an infuriated phone call from the VP emerita.)
But her legacy is secure. The Cotton School of Public Non-Relations has spread throughout Silicon Valley. Silence, punctuated only by occasional favoritism and browbeating—she really was Steve Jobs' number two—pervades the new giants of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, companies that know they don't need to pitch the press, because the press wakes up every day enraptured by that silence.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment.