Open Letter To Tim Cook on Corporate Communications
DATE: August 19, 2014
TO: Tim Cook, CEO, Apple
FROM: Mike Kuczkowski
RE: Apple Communications Leadership
Much has changed since Apple hired its last communications leader in 1996. We thought we’d offer some thoughts about the communications function and the role of chief communications officer, as you head up a search for the successor to Katie Cotton, who retired at the end of May.
Admittedly, we don’t know much about Apple’s corporate communications. We know Ms. Cotton was highly respected and regarded as a gate-keeper of Apple news and the Apple brand. We know the company has not used agencies, has a strong internal team, has been highly secretive (note: paywall) about company developments, and discourages employees from speaking publicly about the company. We also know Apple has been a tremendously successful company, particularly in the period of 1997 to present. It tops the league in rankings of brand value and corporate reputation. And, it cares deeply about the clarity and quality of its communications. All of which begs the question: Why change? Fair enough, we’ll try to address that along the way.
Communications has always been a critical business function, but the explosion of information, technology, connectivity, and communications channels in the past 15 years has made it far more complex.
Here are the biggest trends:
- The media environment today is always on and global, so the notion of a news cycle no longer exists.
- The ease of online publishing means that stakeholders have powerful ways to communicate and advance their personal agendas without the traditional media’s editorial filter.
- The rise of social networks means that news moves faster than ever.
- And the nature of influence, by virtue of all these factors, has changed, though few people can say precisely how.
For Apple, this creates competing tensions. On the one hand, you increasingly need communications people with highly specialized skills that can master the nuances of engagement in all these channels. On the other hand, you need someone who can connect all the dots. It’s all one brand. It’s all one voice. For better, or worse.
Communications strategy must align with business strategy. We don’t know your business strategy intimately, so here are our assumptions:
- Apple will continue to bring new products to market in new categories while improving products in existing categories, consistent with its track record of innovation. We don’t care if it’s an iWatch, iHealth, iTV or an iCar… (actually, we’d really like an iCar). But we assume that in general, you will continue to disrupt new categories with remarkable products.
- Apple will continue to face considerable scrutiny for anti-competitive behavior, IP and trade practices, Foxconn and labor practices, tax policies, collusion with other technology companies on hiring practices, and environmental issues.
- You are leading Apple through a subtle but significant shift, empowering developers to collaborate more within its operating ecosystem and breaking down traditional barriers to openness in the context of its products.
Based on these assumptions, and the changes in communications and the marketplace, we offer the following recommendations for your lead communicator and the function overall:
1) Corporate storytelling: You need someone who can articulate and advance Apple’s corporate story in multiple ways and across multiple channels. You clearly understand this, based on the more narrative approach you’ve recently taken to product marketing communications (e.g., ‘Stickers’). This doesn’t mean you should hire a children’s book author as your lead communicator, but you should hire someone with the ability to convey powerful, simple, clear stories about the company moving forward.
2) Integration: Your leader needs to be able to integrate your stories to Wall Street and Main Street, and beyond. As the silos between audiences have broken down, people expect to see how it all ties together. You can’t have a story about sapphire iPhone screens and not anticipate some reactions – even ill-advised ones – from outsiders, for example. Your communications leader must be exceptionally strong at this and at identifying areas where you are at risk of delivering potentially dissonant messages to developers, suppliers, or consumers. Again, the notion of a singular voice and brand will be brought to life by your communications function, and it’s critical that your leader be adept at this.
3) Systems thinking: The world of communications moves so fast today, it is virtually impossible to maintain a centralized command-and-control approach. (And we say that while maintaining that there is nothing wrong with pushing for confidentiality and secrecy in product planning cycles.) Think of your communications infrastructure as a network. Most of the action — the interface with the outside world – happens at the nodes, rather than at the center. You need a communications leader who can empower the system of communications – whether through internal communicators, leaders, agencies, or a combination of all three – and get great results. This will require substantial amounts of centralized planning, training, and performance enhancement. This means you’ll also need someone who’s highly collaborative and willing to invest in talent development.
4) Multi-channel skills: Don’t just hire someone who’s good at media relations. Hire someone – and surround them with a team – who can think about how to leverage all the potential channels in which you can tell your story. You also need to activate corporate embassies on Twitter and Facebook. Apple has the power to be a social business success story, but it can’t be if it’s not active in the social media space.
5) Research capabilities: Your communications group should be constantly absorbing qualitative and quantitative data about your audiences, looking for insights and advising the organization about its actions. There’s so much data now about, well… everything. Your communications team should be facile with data, ask smart questions, and be able to find meaning in the numbers.
6) Two-way orientation: Related to the research point above and the accountability point below, communications at its best is a two-way function, delivering insights to the organization while also representing the organization to the outside world. This is both art and science. But if the proper channels are established internally to turn insights into actions, the communications team can be a powerful partner on key strategic (public) issues.
7) Transparency: This is one of the few strategic choices companies can make from a communications perspective to build and maintain trust. Historically, you’ve gone the opposite way. There’s no obligation to be transparent about upcoming product releases. Until you launch something, it’s not news. But you can and should drive greater transparency around your environmental footprint, labor practices, privacy policies, and other issues.
8) Accountability: The public relations industry is a mess when it comes to measurement, but the function itself should be measurable and accountable to leadership. There’s a huge lexicon gap between marketing and public relations, but with all the data we’re now gathering about people, their behaviors, and what influences them, we should be able to do more to understand the impact that effective messages/narratives and smart, strategic deployment of those messages can have on stakeholders.
That’s it. Eight points. We thought there might be more. We wish you tremendous success finding that leader and building the infrastructure and the team. 
 Full disclosure: We have been Apple customers since 1989, when we bought our first Apple Macintosh SE. We’ve followed the company closely, and currently own two iMacs, a Macbook Pro, three iPhones, an iPad, an iPod, as well as multiple peripherals and more iTunes songs and movies than we care to admit. We may sound critical, but we want you to succeed.