Managing public relations for the most powerful country in the world, or one of the most powerful companies, is not a job many people would envy. It’s a field with high stakes, high pressure, and tough challenges.
That’s exactly why Jay Carney loves it.
As a communications leader and policy strategist, Carney has moved from one world power to another. After five years serving as press secretary in the Obama White House, Carney left to build out Amazon’s government affairs team in Washington D.C. because, he joked, “it was time to take on a really relaxing job like this.”
The former journalist is now the senior vice president of global corporate affairs for Amazon, reporting to CEO Jeff Bezos.
Speaking on stage at the GeekWire Summit on Wednesday, Carney said he tells his staff to get excited about the tricky waters they have to navigate. “Isn’t it great? Because we get to be part of these really, really vital, world-changing discussions,” he said.
But another of his comments put Carney back in the middle of the D.C. maelstrom. Asked for his take on current events in the nation’s capital, Carney questioned the honesty and patriotism of President Donald Trump’s administration.
“I covered two White Houses before I went to work for one, the Clinton White House and the George W. Bush White House,” Carney said. “Virtually with no exception, everyone I dealt with in those administrations … I never doubted that they were patriots. I never doubted that they believed they were doing things that were in the best interest of the country. I don’t feel that way now, and I worry.”
Hey @amazon – So is it your companies official corporate position that the the thousands of Americans who work in the Trump Administration aren't "patriots" because that's what your top spokesman (and former Obama hack) @JayCarney just said??? https://t.co/whn1FExoVX
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) October 10, 2019
An hour later, Carney tweeted that he made the comments in his personal capacity.
At the @geekwire summit yesterday, I was asked to compare my experience working in WH for @BarackObama to what’s happening today. I expressed my personal views about today’s politics. I have enormous faith in and respect for the countless patriots throughout the US gov’t.
— Jay Carney (@JayCarney) October 10, 2019
Carney’s shift from the White House to Amazon is emblematic of the growing role tech companies are playing in some of the most important public policy issues facing the globe and the future of technology.
“These are healthy debates,” Carney said. “We have a very strong perspective on the competition issue that I think that has been mischaracterized, but on other issues around privacy and facial recognition and the like, there are valid views. There will be debates and there will be some kind of compromise result.”
Listen to a podcast of the conversation above, continue reading for the edited Q&A with Carney, and see full coverage of the GeekWire Summit here.
Todd Bishop: Do you agree with that assertion that I made in the intro, that you’ve effectively moved from one world power to another?
Jay Carney: I get the comment and there is no question that Amazon is a large company with influence, but it is not, and no company is, nearly as important, relevant, or powerful as the United States government or the U.S. president. Within the private sector, sure. But I think one thing, perhaps, that I bring to this job, and people like me, who’ve done that kind of work, is a little bit of perspective on what a crisis really is. Back when I was in the White House, crises involved life and death decisions, deploying troops, whether or not we’d have healthcare for millions of people who didn’t have it, and issues of that magnitude. And, we deal with issues at Amazon that are incredibly relevant and important, but I can help bring a little perspective on their significance when I’m talking to my colleagues at Amazon.
TB: Tell me about this picture.
Carney: It all happened serendipitously. You mentioned I was a reporter. That was my life. Twenty-one years, 20 years at Time magazine, and I didn’t have plans to make a change, but as serendipity would have it, I’m in a really crappy garage band with a guy named Tony Blinken who is a foreign policy person in DC. I’ve known him forever. He’s a very close friend and he had been working for Joe Biden in the Senate, his staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Biden got picked. Obama/Biden won. I’m talking to Tony the day after the election, and I was, as a reporter, not an advocate at all, but Tony knew that I was very supportive, even though I had been close to McCain, that I was strongly supportive of the Obama candidacy and excited about his win. He began talking to me about, “Hey, you should come in.”
I was thinking, “Well, I speak Russian and maybe I could do something buried in the State Department.” He’s like, “Well, maybe, but how about talking to the team about becoming communications director?”These things are, it’s weird how it happens.
I had met Obama a number of times. My editors — I was bureau chief at the time — like everybody, wanted to meet him back in those days after he won in ’04, but I had not written about him because I oversaw our political coverage, and back in the ’08 race, everybody wanted to cover the Ds that year, and, I was a benevolent boss, and so, I backstopped on McCain.
Of course, if I had written about President Obama, who knows, maybe I would’ve written something that prevented me from ever joining the administration. I wrote one story about his race speech. Remember his famous race speech? I gave it good marks. So, that was good.
But I had known Biden a little bit but not well and never written about him. We hit it off and, suddenly, in December of ’08, I was leaving journalism and entering this new world. I thought it would be a couple of years but then the president asked me to be press secretary and it was just this phenomenal experience. I would’ve stayed to the end, but my wife reminded me that I had said two years and it was five and a half and it was time to take on a really relaxing job like this.
TB: I want to circle back before we end to the current political environment and the environment in the room where you once held court. But, I do want to ask, who is the tougher person to work for? President Obama or Jeff Bezos?
Carney: Look, I’ve been very lucky in my bosses throughout my life. I’ve really never had a bad boss in journalism, or politics, or now in, in the private sector. They’re, obviously, different in so many ways, but they’re very similar in one particular way, which is they are both very long-view focused. Jeff has, historically, been willing to not do the things that typical companies, their CEOs, do when it comes to managing by quarter and maximizing share, all that stuff that he was criticized for in the early days. Investing to scale, and staying frugal to reward customers, all these things and he was willing to take some heat for it.
President Obama was the same way, partly because he was a phenom who had risen from nowhere to become a candidate for president, really. He wasn’t part of the Washington game. He hadn’t been running for president for most of his adult life and he hadn’t been on the national stage. It just meant that he didn’t see things the way others did. He wouldn’t do things that I, and some of his other advisers, would tell him that he absolutely had to do because this is what one does to win the day, or when the week in the media cycle. He’d always listen, sometimes agree, but often just say, “No, I’m not doing that.” And we might pay a price in the near term politically, but it was very consistent with the way he saw things.
TB: As you’re talking with Jeff Bezos, what types of advice does he seek? What types of lessons does he seek to learn from you about what happens in Washington D.C., and what have you been able to share?
Carney: Jeff is not somebody who’s very political and he’s not spent much time focused on that world either at the political or policy level. Before me, and certainly, as I’ve been there with the excellent team we have in place, he gets a lot of useful insight and information about how policy-making happens, or how it doesn’t happen, in the case of Washington. What different, influential leaders might be thinking, what interests them the most.
One of the things we’ve tried to do in Washington, in growing there, it was an incredibly lean presence when I started. We have some subject matter experts now. We’ve become a resource, not just a team that reacts to things. We can provide information and perspective to policymakers and help inform them about our business model and what we do, as well as give them general information about how the markets work and how the kind of technology we use works and affects customers.
TB: One of the key issues this year is questions about antitrust scrutiny. What is your response to lawmakers, other retailers, competitors, including some of those who use your platform, who say, “Amazon is too powerful. It needs to be regulated more strictly, or even broken up?”
Carney: We say a couple of things. One is consistent with what Jeff has said publicly, which is, of course, we’ll be scrutinized. We’re a big institution. All big institutions in this country merit scrutiny, whether they’re nonprofits, or government agencies, or large companies.
We think, and our aim is, that we’ll come through that scrutiny well because we have a really good story to tell. What I’ve found in Washington, and not just in Washington, but around the country and sometimes around the world, is that the perception of Amazon is a little different from the reality. Because of our business model and the fields that we enter, like our core business in retail, this is maybe the most competitive space in the world of the economy and, notwithstanding our size, we’re less than 4 percent of retail in the United States and less than 1 percent globally.
I am surprised, and you’d be surprised, by the number of members of Congress who don’t know that. I got into a spirited conversation with a member of Congress not that long ago, somebody who had been in office for a while, and she just wouldn’t believe me that Walmart was two and a half times our size. So, I had to get out my phone and show her the Google search. We’re not even the biggest retailer in any market where we have a business, which is not to say we’re not big.
Another thing that’s a misconception is that we’re monolithic, as you know, because the fastest-growing part of our retail operation is third-party sellers. It’s growing twice as fast as our owned inventory retail. That’s empowering millions of small and medium-sized businesses around the world. I think we have 200,000 of them, with revenue of over a million dollars. That’s a great fact to point to when there are conversations about what the impact of a business like Amazon is on small businesses.
TB: You are a single-digit percentage of retail sales writ large. But, if you look at total U.S. e-commerce sales, you’re right around 40 percent, and the next biggest competitor is eBay at 6 percent, so a lot of these antitrust discussions to come down to defining the relevant market. It sounds like your argument would be that retail writ large should be the market, whereas others might argue that e-commerce, in particular, should be.
Carney: You’re right. I think the most recent survey said 37 percent and that’s outside. That’s not us. But, you’re right that that is our argument and it’s also logic because there’s not a retailer in the country, and soon, in the world, that hopes to have success, that isn’t hybrid.
It may be a physical store principally, but it’s also online. It may be like some businesses that have started online and now established physical stores. You see Amazon getting into the physical retail business. Obviously, we don’t think e-commerce is going to eliminate physical retail because we’re investing heavily in physical retail.
Going back to Walmart, obviously, a long-standing and very large and successful retailer, their recent success has been driven largely by their success in online. How do you say, “We’re just going to regulate e-commerce,” and who do you leave out then? Do you set thresholds? Here’s the test for me of a market. You want a lawnmower. If we controlled e-commerce, if any company controlled e-commerce or had a dominant position, we could raise prices for lawnmowers and you’d be stuck, right? But you’ll just go down the street and get a lawnmower. You’ll go to the local physical store or another e-commerce site and get that product. We compete all the time, every day, every minute with retailers that are offline and online for customers. If we don’t offer that value proposition and the convenience and a low price, then of course, they’re going to go somewhere else.
TB: You though have this huge built-in advantage with Amazon Web Services providing revenue and ultimately profits into the company and there are sort of these gray areas where Amazon’s power can be perceived from the outside to be unfair. I happen to be wearing the new Amazon 206 Collectives that the Allbirds has spoken out about, that are very similar to their shoes. We talk with retailers who feel like they’re effectively competing against a company that can lower prices because they have this advantage in Amazon Web Services. I realize these things aren’t necessarily illegal or unethical but they can be seen as unfair.
Carney: Let’s tease that apart, AWS, Amazon Web Services is obviously a very successful part of our business and its margins are a little wider than the thin margins of retail, but it is a simple fact that is established by our filings that our consumer business is profitable. Our other businesses do not fund the retail business. The margins are smaller, we’ve been making that point for a long time. It gets highly competitive and retail is always a matter of very slim margins, but Amazon is successful on its own as a retailer and competes accordingly. On the issue of private label products, of the big companies, retailers that you know in this country and around the world, we’re the worst at it. We have the smallest percentage of our revenue that comes from private label, 1 percent of our revenue. There are competitors out there and you go to their stores or online and it’s 20, 25, 38, 80 percent of what they sell is private label.
The fact that we’ve made some investments and tried to get some traction on private label is only because we’re listening to customers and hearing their feedback and trying to provide them products that they want. I don’t want to knock the team that works on that, but if we’re at 1 percent, we’re not exactly killing it in that area.
TB: Do you consider third-party retailers customers?
TB: What do you say then when those customers are complaining that they feel like …
Carney: That we work our butts off every day for them to make sure that they succeed as much as possible on Amazon and the proof is in the numbers. They’re growing twice as fast as our inventory. Long before my time at Amazon, maybe before you were paying attention, but when the company introduced this marketplace idea so that it could vastly expand selection for customers because that’s what they wanted and they invited other sellers into what had been wholly-owned store with only Amazon products, people thought, the market thought Jeff was crazy.
It was like, “Why would you let, on a completely equal footing, somebody else coming into your store and compete with your products?” The answer was because ultimately it would pay off down the road because that’s what the customer wants. The customer wants the breadth of selection. The customer wants the customer reviews that then help him or her make a decision about what product is best and most reliable and has the best price. It’s completely in our DNA but also in our interest to ensure that our small and medium-size sellers succeed and we work every day to help them succeed.
TB: It’s great to be able to talk to you because there are so many nuanced and interesting issues. Obviously, the area of competition is one. Another is the issue of privacy, free speech, and Brad Smith on stage here yesterday credited Amazon for signing onto the Christchurch Call after the tragedy there to try and block streaming of live incidents such as that. Unfortunately, there was another today in Eastern Germany and it was livestreamed on Twitch. Where is this headed? Can technology be created such that we can preserve free speech yet also prevent these kinds of incidents from being broadcast live to the world?
Related: Amazon considered stricter privacy settings after criticism over handling of voice recordings
Carney: Let’s back up, Brad deserves a lot of credit for the leading role he played in arranging that and we were delighted to participate. The prime minister of New Zealand is an incredibly compelling world leader on this issue and I think when you talk to her, you can’t say no. I admire her greatly for the lead she’s taken on this. I think Brad was noting that we’re not a social media [company] but Twitch is an area and what happened today is horrendous and I know that Twitch has either taken it all down or is actively working on that now and that any customer that has posted or reposted any of that stuff is off for good, and we’ll work with authorities to make sure that we’re doing the right thing in this regard.
To answer your bigger question, I think the only answer is effective cooperation between private sector technology companies and governments because we have the deep view into how the technology works. We have the expertise to help governments and policymakers around the world make balanced decisions about how to regulate in this space so that we can, as much as possible, prevent that kind of use of these services without stifling innovation or overly limiting free speech. These are unbelievably compelling and complicated issues. The fact that we’re even a small part of this conversation and we’re a bigger part of other incredibly compelling conversations is why I love working at Amazon. I tell my teams all the time [when] they feel like we get a lot of incoming, “Isn’t it great? Because we get to be part of these really, really vital, world-changing discussions.”
TB: Another of those world-changing discussions is happening right now in terms of artificial intelligence and facial recognition, and Jeff Bezos told reporters a couple of weeks ago that Amazon is working on facial recognition regulations that it would propose to Congress?
Carney: Jeff was right, of course … A colleague, Michael Punke, former ambassador of the world trade organization who now works in our policy shop, he wrote a blog post that laid out the guidelines that we are working under, the general principles. Now we’re going deeper into suggestions about how this technology should be properly regulated because we believe two things. One is that like any new technology, it can be used powerfully for good and potentially for ill and you want to make sure that you maximize the former and minimize the latter.
We’re eager to work with lawmakers and regulators to find that balance. I would note that with our service, where the discussion is often around law enforcement use of it, we have yet to have a report of abuse by a law enforcement agency, if and when that happens, that customer will be cut off from our service. Wherever we are in the process of regulations and legislation, ultimately, the use by law enforcement agencies of technology like this, just as was the case with DNA, it needs to have some guard rails around it and those guard rails have to come ultimately from policy makers with the input of businesses.
TB: So your specific input to them, will it deal at all with the issues or the questions of whether or not facial recognition accurately identifies women and people of color?
Carney: When we sell to law enforcement agencies, our instruction to them is this technology should only be used in this use case at the 99 percent certainty level. There’ve been tests, I think somewhat disingenuous tests of the technology that have set the reliability level or the confidence level much lower, but that’s not how it’s supposed to be used, and that’s not how law enforcement customers are meant to use it.
TB: But these are the neutral researchers from MIT.
Carney: Well, not all of them have been neutral, but again, if they set it at 80 percent, you’re going to get 80 percent results. But law enforcement agencies are very clearly told that the proper usage of this should be at the 99 percent confidence level and should always have human review. Again, we’ve yet to have a documented case of abuse. I’m not saying that won’t happen because it obviously could, but ultimately to control how law enforcement agencies use technology, companies can’t do that in the end because these are government agencies. Governments have to and policymakers and legislators have to.
I think DNA is instructive. When DNA was first introduced into our judicial system as an evidentiary tool, the ACLU and others were extremely concerned. There was a lot of talk about how this would lead to Big Brother government, over intrusion into our privacy. I think it’s fair to say that civil libertarians feel elated by how DNA has been used in the judicial system. There are so many people who have been found innocent on death row because of its use and that’s an example of technology that has the potential for both good and ill being properly used and regulated for good. You don’t want to prevent the upside potential because in our case, just with our service, there’ve been hundreds if not thousands of cases of missing children found, of victims of human trafficking saved because of the law enforcement use of this technology. We want that.
We just are extremely aware of and understanding of the fact that there are concerns about how this could be abused, so that’s where we need to get regulation and law.
TB: In the time we have remaining here, I would be remiss if I didn’t get your big-picture thoughts on what’s happening in Washington, D.C. these days.
Carney: Pretty quiet.
TB: Do you ever wish you were back there, behind that podium?
Carney: Only in that I wish my old boss was back there behind that podium. It’s not a place I recognize or a job that I recognize. Not that they really even have that job anymore.
TB: What’s different?
Carney: I covered two White Houses before I went to work for one, the Clinton White House and the George W. Bush White House. Virtually with no exception, everyone I dealt with in those administrations, whether I personally agreed or disagreed with what they thought were the right policy decisions or the right way to approach things, I never doubted that they were patriots. I never doubted that they believed they were doing things that were in the best interest of the country. I don’t feel that way now and I worry.
There were things that we thought could never change in our country that we realize aren’t governed by laws, aren’t controlled by laws. They’re controlled by norms that have been built up. The way we behave in our governmental institutions and are governed largely by precedent.
A good example of this is I had it drummed into my head by everybody on our economic team that I would never, ever, ever talk about the Fed or interest rates. We don’t do that from the White House. Critics would pounce on you for trying to tamper with the Fed. I guess they didn’t get that memo in the current White House.
Critics of President Obama and of me might laugh at this, but I never lied. I sometimes said things that turned out to be wrong, and we would correct them but not knowingly did I say that. Not at all because we were morally superior because we thought that would be terrible for the president, for the White House, for the administration, for the country.
Any presidency is always in a struggle to retain influence and credibility. Why would you inflict that on yourself? When you can’t answer something, or you don’t have a good answer to give, you say, “I [won’t] take that question,” or, “I don’t have an answer for you.” You don’t lie. There doesn’t seem to be that standard today.
TB: What about the state of the media as it relates to politics? Obviously you’re comfortable and you know how to joust back and forth. You have to from behind that lectern. But it feels like it’s something different today. What are your observations about the state of media and its relationship with policy and politics?
Carney: Look, we got into it. I got into it. We would get frustrated. There were stories we hated. I would yell at reporters. I may have yelled at some that are here today. But fundamentally I believe, given where I came from, and I know that my colleagues believed, and I know President Obama believed that the service provided by, and the value that comes from an independent media is elemental to our democracy. Of course they’re not always going to get it right and they’re not always going to tell it the way we want it to be told as subjects of it. That’s true now obviously at Amazon, but the role is so vital.
One of the things that was frustrating when I was there is that there was this urge by reporters to cover the next big Gate. What turned out to be minor things … I can’t tell you how many times in the five and a half years I was there that reporters had declared that this is going to be what dooms the Obama presidency. Whether it was the Deepwater Horizon spill or the IRS issue, whatever it was. Healthcare, the screw up with launching healthcare. Then when things worked out and didn’t turn out to be that serious, it’d be like crickets. Nobody would ask about those issues anymore, and we’d move on. That was frustrating because it felt like they were sensationalizing stories and making crises out of things that weren’t.
That’s not happening today. These are crises for real, and I think more than ever we’ve seen from the independent media why they’re important. While I know they’re exhausted, my former colleagues on that beat and in Washington, are working hard on really noble cause. And not always getting it right and often falling prey to the way that political reporters tend to cover things as a competition and a race instead of at a higher level. But mostly, there’s been great work and we are lucky to have them.
TB: You talked earlier about the excitement, how interesting your job is. What would be your final message here to the crowd of tech leaders, business leaders, scientific leaders about your role at Amazon, where you see the future of tech going. What would you want to leave this audience with?
Carney: If you’re not a prime member, I highly recommend it.
TB: It is Prime Day at GeekWire with you and Dave Limp here on the stage.
Carney: Exactly. No, look, Amazon’s just one of many companies that are small and large that are part of these important conversations. These are healthy debates. We have a very strong perspective on the competition issue that I think that has been mischaracterized, but on other issues around privacy and facial recognition and the like, there are valid views. There will be debates and there will be some kind of compromise result [that] will take place. We won’t love all of it. Other tech companies won’t but that’s how the process should work.
What I hope for from the political process in this is that open-mindedness. One of the things I find frustrating — and I’m going to do my thing here — is I don’t ask anybody, especially in the Democratic party right now to run around campaigning on the fact that Amazon is good for the country because I know that’s not politically palatable. But the fact is we are. My view is if you’re a Democrat or you’re a progressive who still believes that capitalism, effectively regulated, is the best engine for economic growth and therefore poverty alleviation and job creation, then what do you want large employers to do? You want them to raise wages.
As you know, last year we raised our minimum wage to $15 an hour. We’ve been actively lobbying in Congress for the federal minimum wage to be raised to $15 an hour. If that were to happen, no doubt our wage rates, like everybody’s would go up from 15.
What else do you want major companies to do? You want them to provide their employees with full comprehensive high-quality benefits. Everybody at Amazon has always gotten the same healthcare benefits, if you’re a starting fulfillment center worker, as I get, as senior executives get.
And then because of the changing economy, you want companies with the capacity to invest in this, to invest in upscaling, to create opportunities for their employees to learn new skills so that they can find jobs that are higher paying. We have been doing this for a long time with our Career Choice Program. We just announced this $700 million investment to upskill a hundred thousand Amazonians over the next several years. That’s not just fulfillment center workers. That’s software developers who want to learn new skills. Some of the skills they learn will mean that they’ll stay at Amazon. Sometimes they’ll learn skills that take them elsewhere and that’s okay too. But that’s what you want companies to do and companies of scale, like Amazon, can do something like that and have a broader impact.
By setting a $15 minimum wage, we put pressure on other companies to do the same, and we’ve actively called on other companies to do the same. There are 40 million Americans working today who get paid less than the lowest-paid person at Amazon. Forty million. To hear some politicians talk, you’d think that that wasn’t the case at all. I’m really worried about those 40 million as I am also focused on Amazon workers and making sure that we provide them the best experience possible.