Apple’s Comms Exec Peels Off

What leaders inside tech and beyond can learn from a little-noticed but potentially important Apple departure.

This particular senior executive’s departure from Apple wasn’t front-page news. Unless you read tech trade blogs or consume every morsel of Apple news, you may have missed it entirely.

But the recent resignation of Steve Dowling, the firm’s vice president of communications, is a reminder of the role’s value as well as its dramatically changing nature—both inside and outside the world of tech.

Experts say the chief communications officer role has shifted even since 2014, when Dowling, who had been at Apple since 2003, assumed the job, says Richard Marshall, global managing director for Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs practice. Back then, stakeholders usually were content to know about the latest specs of a firm’s gadgets or services.

Now, however, explaining how long the battery of the latest phone will last is only one of the myriad topics Apple needs to address. Issues such as privacy, the amount of time children spend in front of screens, the treatment of workers, and corporate culture are rapidly becoming issues a tech communications leader must plan for.

“Apple was the master of the product reveal,” Marshall says. “Products are great, but now it’s about the impact of those products.”

Dowling was responsible for overseeing internal and external communications while also trying to project Apple’s reputation of being a secretive factory that churned out life-changing tech products. But these days, that secrecy can only go so far, when employees who don’t like what’s going on at the firm tell the world. “There are no walls between internal and external communications. Anything leaks out,” Marshall says.

Experts say with so much more transparency in corporate life, top communication executives have to be stewards of the organization’s reputation. PR may have a reputation of putting things in the most positive light, but the senior executive has to be a truth teller to other senior leaders, Marshall says, helping to make sure what the company says it’s doing is what the firm actually doing.

That radical transparency also needs to make its way into a company’s talent development and succession planning, notes Jamen Graves, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in leadership and talent consulting. Dowling reported directly to Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook. The lead communications role will be assumed on an interim basis by Apple’s marketing chief. “An interim person is not a succession plan; that’s emergency succession,” Graves says.

Dowling isn’t the first top executive who recently decided to leave Apple. In June, design chief Jony Ive announced he was leaving, and that came two months after the departure of retail chief Angela Ahrendts. For a long time, top technology firms would assume that senior leaders would never leave, or if they did that the firm could hire anyone it wanted as a replacement.

Graves says Apple and other firms need to convey how the firm is nurturing the next generation of leaders whenever a current one departs. “Don’t take for granted that your senior leaders will always stay. Take the pipeline for those senior leadership roles seriously,” he says.