If my graduate students weren’t taking their media relations mid-term exam today, I know how we’d be spending the first fifteen minutes or so of class: Discussing Amazon’s royal straight flush of a reputation management blunder. Or is it a media relations tantrum. Or maybe it’s a Master Plan that has yet to be revealed to us. Whatever it is, we’re talking about it this morning. Which is quite the point.
Indeed yesterday’s baffling resurrection of last August’s New York Times story about the e-commerce giant’s ‘intense’ work environment contained so many media relations missteps that maybe I’ll just ask the class to read about it and see how many separate mistakes they can identify.
Here are the most obvious PR lessons brought to light so suddenly yesterday by Amazon, because for those trying to learn how to manage media relations deftly, this is a real gem of a teaching moment:
Don’t start a public fight with the press. It only serves to remind everyone of the news that bothers you so much you’re compelled to stoke the dispute long after the dust has settled and everyone has moved on. Even if Amazon had some sort of ‘gotcha’ to show that the Times story was incorrect and unfair, research shows that many readers will remember the original story anyway. So Amazon should counter by sharing new stories, not obsessing on old ones.
The spokesman is never supposed to be the story. Period.
Related to this, the fact that the company spokesman was central to this piece is why this weird episode lacked authenticity. If employees had genuinely risen to defend Amazon then the authenticity of that response might have sparked some interesting discussion about the portrayal of company culture in the Times. But to have the spokesman dispute the story—and share personnel records in the process---has bad strategy written all over it. It seemed like bullying a whistle-blower. They didn't have a longtime employee to rise to the defense of the company? If someone who had real history working at Amazon had written a passionate essay in Medium we might have been talking about something else this morning.
The day an unflattering story appears in the press may be tough, but in our era of infinite choice and ultimate distraction, people move on pretty quickly. (And to be clear: I’m not talking about a genuine catastrophe in which people’s lives are lost or horribly impacted; I’m talking about an unflattering story in the press, and maintaining some perspective about it.) According to the Times: “The debate…prompted a fresh flood of readers to the original article.” When more people have now become aware of the story Amazon so vehemently denies because they brought it back to life out of nowhere, this is NOT a Mission Accomplished moment.
And if I can remove my PR hat for a moment….As a mom who has had to get to the bottom of hotly contested issues, need I remind you: Being defensive is a tell. Your response to criticism is a tell. Hostility is a tell.
A willingness to listen is a great strategy. This situation suggests the virtues of listening in two ways. First, internal and external communications too often exist in separate silos. If ever there were an argument for the conscious integration of programs that integrate communications to internal and external audiences, this is it. Employees are your best brand ambassadors and supporting them with communications is good business and a sound investment in insurance you may need someday. And further, if the response to this withering piece in the Times had seemed more like a listening campaign and less like a defensive internal investigation, Amazon would have seemed like a much friendlier, more authentic and collaborative place. Which seems to be the message they really want to get across, after all.
Respond to unfavorable stories with favorable stories. I’ve tried to find an explanation for Amazon’s purposeful resuscitation of this story and one of the only theories that makes any sense is that they are worried about the impact it might have on recruiting. If that’s the case, then a far better strategy would be to share a string of authentic good news stories—programs in employee development, community relations, corporate social responsibility, customer service. They need to true of course.
The first rule of PR is to refrain from doing anything that will undermine the stock price, core business, or employee morale. Because Amazon’s stock price is fine and there seems to be no high visibility employee uprising to contend with, instigating yesterday’s public drama in the press and on social media seems just plain bizarre and potentially counter-productive
Reporters do not owe you a list of sources who will be quoted in their stories. To complain about that after the fact is silly.
A company as big as Amazon has lots of good stories. Take if it from customers. Like me for instance. I read the Times story in August. I have had Amazon shares among my investments. And to be honest, I was thinking of writing about Amazon myself recently—a piece about how, in tangled mess of online retail and bait-and-switch promotions, Amazon has really helped make life a little better. Every minute I spend watching Downton Abbey thanks to Prime when I would normally be trapped and miserable inside an oppressive commuter train is a minute I love their brand more. Every time I can find the phone case or the lacrosse goggles I need the next day and can't find anywhere, I thank Amazon. Have you ever called customer service when you have a Kindle problem? They're amazing. In my mom's group on Facebook, we recently had a long discussion about the wonders of Prime.
Amazon should focus on stories like mine. There are fans out there. They are the best, most authentic defense against criticism.
If yesterday's drama was advancing a strategy, that strategy remains a mystery to me.
And a great teaching moment.
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Amy Wolfcale is the CEO of Falcon + Wolf, a partner at Thought Leadership Strategies, and a Professor in the New York University Graduate School of Professional Studies, School of Strategic Communication, Marketing, and Media Management. She is also a writer and an actual (as opposed to demographically identifying) soccer mom. And she loves elephants.