Amazon’s Weird, Defensive Blog Post Is Actually Smart PR
Amazon and The New York Times are beefing.
This morning, Jay Carney, one-time White House press secretary and current Amazon PR boss, dropped an unexpected blog post on Medium. It was a response to an August New York Times exposé on the online retailer’s seemingly brutal workplace culture—and Carney didn’t hold back. He called the reporters’ credibility into question. He claimed that the Times missed out on providing crucial context to its readers. And he revealed personnel details on a handful of ex-Amazonians quoted in the piece to contradict the report, including information on one source who was apparently fired from Amazon after an investigation found that he had attempted to defraud vendors, then hid it by falsifying business records.
The whole thing was super weird, and very out of the blue.
Then the feud escalated. Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, published his own piece on Medium saying the newspaper stood by its story. And Jay Carney responded to that, accusing the Times of not fact-checking its most important sources, despite working on the story for six months. “I really don’t see a defensible explanation for that failure,” Carney wrote.
It’s like watching two roommates post a bunch of passive aggressive notes on the fridge. https://t.co/j5Tubk5Tcf
— Steve Kovach (@stevekovach) October 19, 2015
Meanwhile, the media was on the sidelines watching the whole thing unfold. Some wrote in praise of a new media landscape where the public can now see the transparent back-and-forth between two very important and established entities. (A spokeswoman from Medium even wrote to WIRED: “Thought this would be the perfect time to shed light on this dynamic that Medium allows and what it means for stories that provoke dialogue.”)
But the most interesting story here may be one that’s much more old-fashioned. In a lot of ways, it’s about yet another company trying to jostle its way into a better position after taking a public hit. And when you look at things that way, then yeah, it’s pretty much a tale we’ve heard before—it’s just the platform that’s changed.
To be sure, a lot of thought undoubtedly went into deciding whether or not Amazon was still in a position to respond to the Times, says Howard Bragman, a crisis communications expert and the chairman of Fifteen Minutes, a public relations firm. “The balance that a PR person always has to ask themselves is, ‘Are we going to make this a bigger story if we respond, or should we just let this going away and we can withstand this?’” Bragman tells WIRED. “And then the question becomes, ‘How do we want to respond?’”
For Bragman, Amazon’s response was good overall. First, the fact that Jay Carney was the one who handled the response could make the company seem more credible, he says. “Traditionally, it’s someone from PR who drafts a response, then the company CEO—Amazon’s CEO—would sign it,” Bragman says. “But Amazon apparently decided Carney was the right person for the job, that the association … gives [Amazon] the gravitas it needs.” Taking the post to social media was a smart move too, Bragman adds. “You can tell your story unadulterated,” he says. “You get to tell your story in a pure, clear voice.”
It’s very different from the approach taken by another company, Theranos, which is facing its own PR crisis these days after The Wall Street Journal published a damning report that detailed the ways in which it apparently grossly under-delivered on its promises and worked hard to hide its many problems. Theranos published a post on its own site, which didn’t get the same attention Amazon’s post by Carney did. “A company blog has a certain perception,” Bragman says—it just feels obvious.
That said, Amazon did respond in a pretty traditional way right after the Times report. The same day the investigation was published, an Amazon representative circulated a LinkedIn rebuttal post by one Amazon engineering manager. Bezos responded with a companywide memo, which was published by several outlets.
No, this was probably a much more calculated move for maximum impact, says Kathleen Schmidt, a longtime publicist and the director of marketing for publishing company Running Press. “If it were on [Amazon’s] company blog, I think it would have been less of a story, and more boring,” Schmidt says. “It would have really attached it to the brand. This story is a story about Amazon on Medium.”
And that difference is crucial, according to Schmidt. After all, Medium is turning out to be a venue where tech VIPs and investors are increasingly airing their grievances, celebrating their successes, and confessing their failures. Its audience isn’t huge compared to, say, Facebook, but the people who do read it tend to be influential in the tech and media worlds—the audiences Amazon is seeking to reach.
“My feeling is Jay Carney took to Medium specifically because he wanted the media to see it, and he wanted the Times to see it,” Schmidt says. “He wants it to be in the news in certain places.”
All About Timing
Okay, so why make the move now? More likely than not, this is about timing. For one thing, Amazon has an earnings report coming up—its first since the Times story was published. It may have wanted to be able to show investors and shareholders that it has done something to address its culture image problem. And there’s another Amazon-related story that’s been all over the mainstream media this week, on morning shows, the radio, television, and the biggest tech news blogs: Amazon has filed a lawsuit against a thousand people who offered to write fake reviews for a price.
Unlike the hubbub on Medium, that’s the type of story that most consumers—like, people you could walk up to in your gym—would have heard about, says Schmidt. Still, in both cases, there’s one consistent message Amazon seems to be trying to put out there. “Amazon is sending a message out to the consumer: ‘We’re the trustworthy ones. We’re taking care of it. We’re the good guys,’” Schmidt says. And fostering that trust is very important to Amazon, especially now that we’re heading into the holiday season, now that a whole lot of people are about to decide whether or not they want to go shopping on Amazon.
Schmidt does acknowledge that one weird part of this is how Amazon has chosen to try and discredit The New York Times, when it might have been easier to let that story fade away. “It’s possible that there’s something we don’t know yet,” she says, musing that perhaps Amazon is about to announce less-than-stellar results during its earnings call on Thursday.
Whatever the case, she laughs off the possibility that maybe Carney “went rogue,” and decided to pen this missive on Medium independently. “Amazon is a very public company and The New York Times is a very public news organization,” she says. “It’s not like the Times has a spokesperson handling the response. They have their executive editor going to bat for them.”
“Amazon, meanwhile, has its head PR guy who was Obama’s PR guy. But you’re still a PR person, no matter where you are. You know what you’re doing, and you know why you’re doing it.”
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