Sometimes change is good, sometimes it’s not so good. One thing however is certain: change is inevitable. In my world, the inevitable doesn’t get much bigger than the recently announced departures of communications pros from three of the biggest “brands” on the planet: Ford Motor Company, Apple Inc. and The White House.
What? You were visiting the International Space Station and somehow missed the news? Let me bring you up to speed.
A few weeks ago, Apple Inc. communications chief Katie Cotton, an 18-year veteran of the fabled company, announced she would be leaving. Normally, a PR chief’s departure rates a “meh” on the newsmaking scale, but this one set tongues-a-waggin’ like no other. Not all of it was good. In fact, while I don’t personally know Ms. Cotton, I was taken by the reports that portrayed her as someone who had a relatively acrimonious relationship with the journalists on whom the company relied to amplify its news.
Vallewag, that snark-infested chronicler of all things squirrelly in the technosphere, summed it up with its piece titled “Goodbye to Katie Cotton, the Queen of Evil Tech PR.” Reporter Sam Biddle citedÂ long-time tech scribe Miguel Heft (Fortune, New York Times) describing Ms. Cotton 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.”
Re/code’s John Paczkowski offered his take when breaking the news:
“[Cotton] helped steward the announcement of some of techâ€™s most transformative products, is retiring. During her nearly two decades at Apple, Cotton served as gatekeeper to company co-founder Steve Jobs and current CEO Tim Cook, and guided the media narrative around pretty much everything from the iMac to the iPad. Sheâ€™s long been among the companyâ€™s most powerful executives and played a key role in shaping the mystique and exclusivity surrounding the Apple brand.”
Now I’ve written about Apple PR on numerous occasions over the years. I’ve always been amazed how in command and control the internal PR team was in terms of shaping how the news media portrayed their products and innovations. What’s especially surprising is that Ms. Cotton clearly had quite a few detractors in the news media, yet still managed to advance Apple’s interests. Re/code’s co-founder Kara Swisher quoted something Ms. Cotton once told her in her piece “Goodbye to All That: Today Is Katie Cottonâ€™s Last Day at Apple,” that posted late yesterday:
“I am not here to make friends with reporters, I am here to put a light on and sell Apple products.”
Swisher went on to put Cotton’s role in perspective compared to others at the most sought-after tech companies in business today:
“Was she aggressive? Sure. (So is Facebookâ€™s Elliot Schrage.) Did she sometimes ice our reporters out, ignore calls or reply with newsless answers? Sometimes. (Please meet Yahoo PR for much of my time covering it over the last two decades, especially under the current administration, which has not return any of my calls in years.) Did she try her hardest to showcase Apple and its products in a way that benefited it? Yep. (Paging Andreessen Horowitzâ€™s Margit Wennmachers!)Was she vocal when she did not like something we did? And how. (So are Microsoftâ€™s Frank Shaw and Googleâ€™s Rachel Whetstone, both of whom can throw a pretty decent uppercut when they are not happy with something we have written.)
That kind of hard driving is part and parcel to the business, even if she was harder driving and, because of that, more successful than most.”
Tellingly, Ms. Swisher corrected NewYorker.com editor Nick Thompson’s tweet in which he characterized the are/code piece as praising Ms. Cotton:
â€” Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) May 31, 2014
Philip Elmer-Dewitt, who’s covered Apple since 1982 (at Time Inc.), summed it up thusly: “For 18 years she shaped Apple’s public image — and kept the press at bay.”
I first met Scott Monty when he had just accepted the position as head of Ford Motor Company’s social and digital communications. We were seated next to one another at a blogger meetup dinner during some conference. When he told me about his soon-to-start new gig, I shared with him my tale of having to resort to my blog after my local Lincoln dealer refused to acknowledge an issue I was having with the roof racks on my SUV. (The rack ripped off and scratched the roof of the vehicle as my son was car-topping his Laser sailboat en route to regatta.)
Ironically, Scott knew about the incident and was even asked by the powers-that-be at Ford during the interview process how he would handle. Thankfully, he advised them to take care of me. After all, it was my fourth car from the automaker, and the $200 to fix the scratch was well worth my continued loyalty. Smart. (Did I ever thank you for your good instincts, Scott?)
Scott spent six years at Ford where he embraced every dimension of social and digital communications. As big as Ford is, Scott was able to create a culture of innovation that offered him the latitude to try new things. In fact, that forward-thinking culture, in my opinion, help distinguish the automaker and its models from others in the eyes of consumers who were increasingly consuming product news and info through these new social channels and platforms. Here are some social media stats that reflect Scott’s legacy at Ford:
And these do not include the social clout of Ford’s individual models. I think Shel Israel accurately captured Scott’s pioneering contributions to Ford and the world of corporate social media in his Forbes post “Scott Monty Leaves Ford: What it Means to Social Media.” In it, Shel raises important questions about the changing role of social media in a market-driven organization, and what Scott’s departure could portend.
“Scott Monty is leaving Ford Motors after six years as head of its social media group. This is a great loss for Ford, in my view. It also heightens my growing fears about how big brands will handle social media in the coming years.
Like me, Monty has long been a champion of using social media to humanize large organizations by scaling conversations and ultimately building and reinforcing brand trust.
This is in direct conflict with traditional marketingâ€™s approach of treating social media tools as new arrows in the old outbound marketing quiver. To that line of thinking, brands can use blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as online message delivery mechanisms: Shoot millions of them up into the air and, as they fall, theyâ€™re bound to hit somebody, or so the current thinking goes.”
It is this graph from Israel that resonates loudest with me:
“Monty has been one of the poster children of making the modern brandâ€”even entrenched, iconic brands like Fordâ€”more conversational, personal and transparent. Along with other social media pioneers who injected this new thinking into other big brands, he believes the real power of this new form of communications lies in listening to the views of customers, prospects, partners and competitors.”
Scott will be missed.
The White House
Last but not least, this week we learned the President Obama’s spokesman and the person most responsible for keeping the White House press corp at bay, Jay Carney, has resigned. About a year ago, I penned a piece in which Mr. Carney figured front and center. In it I shared my frustration with his halting communications style and lack of certitude when confronted by a false-equivalency obsessed and easily manipulated press corps day in and day out.
“He just appears nervous standing up there, which is not an impression that inspires confidence. Hereâ€™s a direct quote from him in response to emails the GOP used to bolster its spurious Benghazi narrative:
‘I think the entire email â€” the report I read showed the entire email, and what it showed is that Republicans who were leaking these press â€” these emails that have been shared with Congress didnâ€™t just do that; they decided to fabricate portions of an email and make up portions of an email in order to fit a political narrative,’ Carney said. ‘And I think â€” Iâ€™m not surprised by it because weâ€™ve seen it again and again.’
I think Mr. Carney has since evolved considerably in getting POTUS’s message across, but I can’t say I’m not looking forward to seeing his successor Josh Earnest take the podium. Hopefully, Mr. Earnest’s surname will give him a leg up. Even Mr. Obama picked up on the importance of being earnest:
“His name describes his demeanor,â€ Obama said of Earnest. â€œJosh is an earnest guy and you canâ€™t find just a nicer individual, even outside of Washington.â€¦ He is of sound judgment and great temperament. He is honest and full of integrity.”