Amazon’s surprising response to the New York Times has received lots of attention in the tech world this week — coming more than two months after the newspaper’s widely read article about Amazon’s “bruising workplace,” and publicly accusing a former employee of malfeasance in an effort to discredit one of the most attention-grabbing quotes in the story.
The rebuttal by Amazon executive Jay Carney, the former White House press secretary, goes against conventional wisdom in the public-relations business, by giving the article new life and another news cycle just as it might have started to fade from memory for many readers.
And the decision to accuse a former employee of seeking to defraud Amazon vendors is highly unusual in a world where large companies typically don’t talk publicly about internal personnel issues. Amazon has declined to say whether it referred the case to law enforcement, and the former employee told the New York Times this week that he denied the allegations.
But those are just two of the ways in which Amazon broke the mold of traditional crisis communications. The company’s approach has been the talk of the public relations world this week. GeekWire contacted several communications executives and PR professionals — none of them currently affiliated with or working for Amazon — and asked for their take on Amazon’s strategy.
Continue reading for their responses.
Elizabeth Herrera Smith, Senior Vice President at WE Communications (formerly Waggener Edstrom):
We’ve all been at the other end of a tough story, so I understand the desire to set the record straight. In these situations timeliness is king, which Amazon clearly understood with its follow up response from Jeff Bezos immediately after the story posted.
Once you make it past the crisis, you have to weigh the pros and cons of resurrecting the issue. The best defense is to be the story you want to tell and demonstrate through your actions who you really are.
This is the opportunity for Amazon – to highlight all of the things their employees say they like most about the company’s culture and take control of their story.
Bob Silver, Silver Strategic Communications:
As a former editor/ reporter turned PR professional, I’m fascinated by this exchange between Amazon and the NYT on several levels. I doubt that the average consumer/ reader cares about this at all, but who among us in the business (PR or journalism) doesn’t love a good, public pissing match?
That said, I’m most interested in the ramifications on the PR industry.
I love the fact that the company is aggressively trying to tell its side of the story and is using new publishing tools and venues such as Medium to do so. Just as technology, social media and self-publishing have changed the journalism profession, so too have they changed the business of public relations.
PR professionals have to get out of the business trying to convince traditional media to tell their side of the story – that business is dead, whether it’s B2C, B2B or crisis PR. Too many PR pros just don’t get it yet. The Amazon crisis team, led by Jay Carney, clearly does.
Some of Amazon’s tactics are totally predictable:
- Discredit the former employee and question his motivation;
- Raise doubt about the reporting tactics and motives, i.e., the reporters didn’t thoroughly vet the facts, they sensationalized the material and simply didn’t report the truth;
- Alleging that the interview material was taken out of context and nuanced to support more sensational reporting, and supporting those allegations with testimonials from other employees.
No surprises there. But the Amazon team really colored outside the lines in a couple of areas. Again, it’s fascinating to think how this recasts the foundation of crisis PR.
First, they publicly used materials usually reserved for an employee’s personnel files to discredit the employee’s veracity and motivation. (Imagine being a fly on the wall when the Amazon PR team first brought that up with the company’s HR and legal departments.)
It likely won’t change [NYT executive editor] Dean Baquet’s position, but it does send a crystal-clear message to current and former employees – you’re either on the bus or off the bus, but if you make too much noise getting off the bus, you may get thrown under the bus.
Second, they shared verbatim a private email exchange between a reporter and a senior PR staffer. At a time when email is the preferred method of communication between the media and PR pros, this definitely casts a shadow on how this communication takes place going forward.
Finally, full disclosure: I worked on the Amazon PR account when I ran the Seattle office for MWW Group from 2004-2011, and several of my former MWW employees currently are members of the Amazon PR team.
Roger Nyhus, CEO of Nyhus Communications:
Timely responses are always better, but sometimes you need to step back and gather the facts before responding.
Because the allegations in Times article were so serious, perhaps it was prudent for Amazon to take time a deep breath and do some research before fully articulating its position.
The use of Medium is consistent with Amazon’s innovative culture. Plus, it allowed the company to share its position in an unfiltered way.
The intense scrutiny Amazon is facing is not unique. In fact, it’s often the fate of market leaders and innovators. Just look at Microsoft during its battles with the U.S. Justice Department.
This is a smart, innovative, global company that’s pioneering online retail. Of course it has high expectations for its people.
Amazon has historically taken a low-key approach to media relations, focusing mainly on its services but not the corporation itself and certainly not its community involvement.
It’s clear that The New York Times coverage has prompted Amazon to be more transparent about its business practices as well as more forcefully defend its brand, which are good outcomes.
If there’s a silver lining to this episode, Amazon has an opportunity to better connect with and engage its key communities. I started seeing this before The New York Times coverage, and it seems to have continued to develop following it.
Aaron Blank, CEO of the Fearey Group:
In my honest assessment, I love the approach and the way they leveraged Medium to own their story. The fact that Amazon can write its own side of the story and put it out there for all the world to see – and not have to rely on a correction or other media outlet to write it for them – is a great example of how much things have changed in the communications and media landscape. Companies always need to look for ways to tell their own story, rather than relying on others to tell it for them.
On the other side, without many personal data points on the bigger picture, it would make one wonder if Amazon had made sufficient relationships at key media outlets through consistent outreach endeavors. A large (or small) company needs to make sure it has the relationships with the media. Tools like Medium allow you to own your story, but it doesn’t fully take the place of the media in our society. Those media relationships are key to ensuring your side of the story gets out when it counts.
I took a pulse of my Public Relations Global Network (PRGN.com) to see what the rest of my colleagues (45+ agency leaders from around the world) think. The reaction has been mixed. Many seem put off by Amazon’s approach. It shows that Amazon has work to do to address these criticisms in audiences around the world. While some applauded Amazon for doing its due diligence, taking the necessary time to fact check—and then coming forth with its side of the story when “it” was ready.
I am sympathetic to the challenges and nuances of this issue, relative to Amazon’s view that the NY Times seemed to cherry-pick cases that supported the premise, and did not do enough to vet some of those sources.
But on the other hand, there was a massive outpouring of personal stories in the comments and across other media outlets from former Amazon employees that very much supported the arguments made in the piece. That should be a wakeup call to the executive team at Amazon that they need to take a hard look at their business to make sure they’re doing the best to attract and retain top talent. It’s key to their continued growth.
Regardless, Amazon has an uphill battle to climb here. It is an essential part of our community. Heck, its physical presence and its employee base make up a good part of Seattle. We, the community, need to help them with its culture. Developing culture is the focus. The past doesn’t matter. Amazon and its employees need to create its future. They need to work together to develop the best tech culture in the country. And its vision needs to focus on it.
Mel Bolton, managing partner at LyonShare Communications:
This is not an unprecedented move — Elon Musk similarly called out a NYT reporter in 2013 for an unfavorable review of the Model S. My feeling is that if you truly believe in a company, its core values and its reputation, and what was written is inaccurate and damaging, then it’s something you should fight for.
I think Amazon was right to call out inaccuracies in the story to try to set the record straight, although it is unusual they waited so long to bring the issue back to light.