Why Apple’s PR strategy frustrated tech media for almost a decade

Ask almost any professional writer who has covered the tech industry during the years from the 1990s dot-com boom to the Facebook-buying-drones-era what their most difficult assignment has been, and they’ll almost universally identify one of the most iconic companies in American history: Apple.

In the years following the second coming of Steve Jobs, which saw Apple ascend to heights the tech industry had never before seen, Apple’s public relations effort was viewed with equal parts awe, disdain, and outright hatred. It was led by Katie Cotton, an executive who was as much an extension of Jobs’ brain as famed designer Jony Ive.

Katie Cotton Apple PR

Apple confirmed earlier this week that Cotton is retiring. The last time I saw Cotton, she was hurtling toward me with an outstretched arm, successfully trying to ruin a photo (from an iPhone, no less) of CEO Tim Cook chatting with former Microsoft executive Steve Sinofsky on the sidelines of last year’s D11 conference. She leaves behind a PR department that has shaped the direction of tech PR in general, for better or worse.

Yet Apple’s notorious strategy of ignoring almost all media requests and inquiries — unless it considered you an ally or had no choice but to deal with you — was more than just the public extension of the culture of secrecy Jobs enforced. It was a response to huge demand for its products coupled with the willingness to exploit an obvious weakness in tech media business models.

Trade mags to blogs

The Wintel-driven tech industry of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which was the primary story in tech media during those years, was much more accepting of media coverage than Apple, even when Apple was struggling. This was an era in which the tech industry was much smaller and more business-oriented than it is today. Microsoft, Intel, and its PC partners needed the fledgling tech media to spread its message and it needed a place to advertise its products before IT managers: Intel even invested in one of the earliest versions of CNET Networks, a company that later gainfully employed me from 2006 to 2011, and where I covered Apple as a single beat from early 2007 to 2009.

A product of that earlier era, Hubspot’s Dan Lyons — who at one point somehow thought he could parlay a hilarious blog skewering one of the most revered technology executives in history into a serious job covering that very same company with top-level access — highlighted several of the changing tactics Thursday that were used by Apple during its ascent, before going off the rails with a bizarre theory about masochistic journalists.

But he did touch on something notable about the Pax Apple era of the tech industry. It is no secret that during the years from, say, 2005 (the seminal event was probably the dramatic upstaging of the Moto Rokr by the iPod nano) through the launch of the iPad, no single topic in the tech publishing generated web traffic quite like Apple, just as the web was becoming the dominant medium for tech publishing.

Around the same time, a brand new class of tech media blogs was growing quickly, groups that were less interested in traditional notions of journalism and more interested in telling readers exactly what they thought about technology. This meant there was an explosion in tech content just as it was becoming clear how much consumers wanted Apple’s products, and somehow, demand outpaced supply.

 Katie Cotton, Apple vice president of corporate communications (L) looks on as Apple CEO Tim Cook (R) uses an iPhone to take a picture of customers waiting in front of an Apple store to purchase the new iPhones on September 20, 2013 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Katie Cotton, Apple vice president of corporate communications (L) looks on as Apple CEO Tim Cook (R) uses an iPhone to take a picture of customers waiting in front of an Apple store to purchase the new iPhones on September 20, 2013 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Apple rumors, no matter how silly, got clicks. Apple announcements, no matter how incremental, got clicks. Anti-Apple screeds, no matter how righteous the rant or obvious the troll, got clicks.

And Apple events — those carefully orchestrated infomercials/passion plays that are as much as a part of Jobs’ legacy as any single product — were year-making page-view generators for tech-media publications. No one was more aware that the vast majority of these tech publications were — and many still are — dependent on page views driven by any kind of Apple coverage to sell advertising than Cotton and Apple’s public relations team.

Entry into those events could make or break a quarter’s traffic goals, even for publications that weren’t necessarily gadget-oriented. And for those that were, the ability to send multiple staffers to live blog Apple events and generate dozens of SEO-friendly stories in the immediate aftermath became an essential part of their business plan. Whenever Apple announced an event every single publishing organization with even a tangential angle on technology scurried to get a seat in the auditorium because their readers demanded Apple coverage in ever-growing numbers.

One more click

That demand was authentic, the awakening of tech consumers who had known nothing but poorly designed and insecure Microsoft products for decades realizing that there was something better. This only accelerated with the release of the iPhone, as game-changing an event in the history of the tech industry as any other single product release.

Steve Jobs with iphone

Cotton didn’t create those conditions; Apple’s product designers and engineers did. She did, however, take advantage of the desperation of tech media for empty clicks and fleeting glimpses of access to Jobs and his acolytes (the executives Apple provided for interviews on rare occasions said next to nothing). While surely some of those people wrote fawning pieces to preserve any access they could get, to assume all of them did, as Lyons implied, ignores the fact that Apple often deserved favorable coverage: it developed some truly amazing products during that period.

Were Apple’s PR tactics manipulative? Of course. Was it the most thin-skinned PR department in technology? Without a doubt. Was it perhaps the most paranoid group of public relations professionals ever assembled outside of Washington D.C., unwilling to let tech reporters go to the bathroom unescorted in a public building? Unbelievably, yes.

But the thing about PR games and access that journalists in general fail to appreciate time and time again is that you don’t necessarily have to play the game if you can bring something better to the table.

There will always be media types who feel they have to suck up to those in power in order to be relevant. And perhaps better than anyone else in tech PR over the last decade, Cotton knew how to play those people.

To call her “evil,” as Valleywag’s Sam Biddle so gleefully chose to do Thursday, misses the target. The only thing Cotton truly deserves scorn for is the now-ludicrous line that Jobs had a “common bug” during the years when his worsening cancer forced a liver transplant, as detailed in Walter Isaacson’s biography.

Otherwise, Apple’s PR strategy merely parlayed the intense interest in its products against an extremely competitive tech media landscape with a business model oriented around page views. This strategy surely did not make it many friends in the media world, but for a very long time, media companies needed Apple more than Apple needed media companies.

Someday that relationship will come more into balance. And whoever steps into Cotton’s shoes is going to have some interesting decisions to make should Apple decide it needs to court the media, after more than a decade of animosity.