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Takeaways from the Gray Lady and Amazon Knife Fight
By: Mike Bush
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Around two months ago, the NY Times ran a scathing article painting a picture of life as an Amazon employee being somewhere between indentured servitude and being the kid who sits alone to eat lunch in the high school cafeteria. Long hours and a lot of crying.

Generally speaking, time (and a killer online reputation management firm) heals all wounds, and generally speaking, the article really doesn’t seem to have had any massive long-term repercussions (analysts are predicting that Amazon will do just south of $25 billion…the coffers aren't exactly dry).

But yesterday, the typical game plan of crisis comms was thrown out the window as Amazon posted a vitriolic response to the Times on Medium, with claims of being misled by reporters and attempts to discredit the (presumably) former employees who were quoted in the Times article. Never one to be short of words, the Times had a response to the response, Twitter was abuzz, and, from the outside, it was like someone had just yelled “FIGHT!!!!!” in the middle of the aforementioned high school cafeteria.

A day later, let’s sort through the carnage and see what we might learn.
  • Bruised egos can’t get in the way of communications strategy. I mentioned that the typical crisis comms playbook was thrown out the window here, and I keep going back to one thought: Why the hell would Amazon revisit this story? There may have been four or six people in the U.S. who hadn’t seen or heard about the original, and based on the rehash, those sub-rock dwellers are probably now in the know. Kidding aside, the response from Amazon brought back the original story (actually adding credence to it), drove page views to the story, and reopened a can of worms. I can’t tell who made the call to run with this post. Was Jeff Bezos’ ego bruised when the story ran? Was Jay Carney annoyed he couldn’t squash this story? Someone let an ego run wild.
  • Amazon did nothing to help its reputation. In fact…it may have done more harm than good. If you know anyone who’s worked at Amazon, they may tell you that it can be a tough place to work (I’ve heard that). They may also tell you they enjoy the fast pace (heard that, too). After the rebuttal from Amazon, they may now tell you they’re terrified of saying anything, lest all of their dirty laundry (including employee reviews) get aired. Most everyone has a work story they’re not proud of, whether it’s having a few too many drinks at the Christmas party or making a rookie mistake that cost their employee an account. Amazon just declared those things are now part of the public domain. Mike Isaac may have said it best:
    another reason this probs not a smart move for AMZN: if you go work there you may get plopped on after leaving https://t.co/rpg4uWUrp6

    — ಠ_ಠ (@MikeIsaac) October 19, 2015
  • Amazon undid its best response. Frank Strong is a pretty smart PR guy. At the time of the original Times story, he and I debated the merits of an Amazon employee taking to the web to defend his company (I wasn’t entirely in favor, and thought the idea had merits but could backfire, whereas Frank thought it was a great idea. You can see the whole exchange here). Regardless of what I thought, the LinkedIn post by Nick Ciubotariu got incredible pickup and gave a not-miserable employee’s version of the story. By jumping in with this (allegedly) well-prepared response, Amazon undid some of the goodwill that was earned from Ciubotariu.
  • ​What is Medium, and why are people posting there? Amazon responded on Medium. The NY Times (hey, I hear they have a website?!?) responded on Medium. Years ago, I worked with a client who shared access to their Google Analytics platform, and a media hit on Lifehacker multiplied their daily traffic by tenfold (it was one of the best charts ever to see as a flack). I’d love to see Medium’s traffic numbers for the past few days. From Dave Pell:
Amazon and NYT fight. And Medium wins.
— Dave Pell (@davepell) October 19, 2015
  • There really IS no such thing as “off the record.” As flacks, we’ve all told clients that when they’re speaking to a reporter, there is no such thing as “off the record.” What’s said or done in front of a reporter is fair game for them to report. If, as the Times says, the majority of folks they talked to said Amazon was an awful place to work, the Times had the right to run the story. Finally…when Amazon claims they “...were given no opportunity to see, respond to, or help fact-check…” the story…well, neither is anyone else.  
This whole thing was weird. I can’t for the life of me decide what was going through people’s minds at Amazon when they decided their response was appropriate. You can imagine the legal team saying things like “Well, we can’t find a precedent that sharing employee reviews publicly is illegal per se,” or someone on the comms team saying “Are we sure we want to open these wounds?”

Regardless, it seems like a bad decision, and one that an experienced team, skilled in analyzing every detail to find opportunities for improvement, should have avoided.


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About the Author
Mike Bush is a PR and Marketing freelancer with more than a dozen years of experience in the field. Find him on and connect Twitter @mikebush or at www.mikebush.nyc. 
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