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Amazon And The New York Times: Corporate PR Gets Tough

carneyThe PR agency world has been buzzing over Amazon’s extraordinary public response to the August New York Times feature about its “bruising” workplace. For those who’ve been under a rock, the piece depicted Amazon as a “survivor”-like environment where utter dedication to company goals is demanded and constant stress is the norm. A refutation of the story, posted this week on Medium by Amazon’s Jay Carney, instantly drew notice, as did a quick response to Carney’s post from Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet.

PR and media pros have various opinions about the strategy, but Carney’s rebuttal is notable in a few ways. First, it was posted on Medium rather than simply released to the press. Some speculate that Carney used the platform for its power to generate search visibility among prospective Amazon recruits, since the post now appears in search results with the original NYT article. Another advantage of Medium as a platform was that Carney apparently requested – and was granted – the ability to shut off comments. Judging from the more than 5000 comments posted after the Times piece, many of them critical of Amazon, I’d say that was an advantage.

But what’s most unusual that Carney’s post came more than two months after the initial story. This bumps against conventional PR wisdom that a delayed or extravagant response to a negative story will only serve to draw fresh attention to it when it might otherwise die down. After all, a “leaked” internal memo by Jeff Bezos within days of the story’s publication served as Amazon’s unofficial but stirring response. In his post, Carney claims Amazon contacted the Times about the story’s misrepresentations several weeks ago and asked for corrections, then decided to make the case on Medium when the paper refused.

Carney’s post also gets personal and even combative, claiming NYT reporter Jodi Kantor misled the company about the nature of the story to gain access. More eye-opening is that it impugns the reputation of an ex-employee of Amazon who is heavily quoted in the story by accusing him of serious misconduct. Carney maintains the Times relied on shaky sources, neglected to check facts, and used anecdotes very selectively to paint a false picture.

The post drew an immediate defense from Baquet, also published on Medium, and Carney in turn posted a response to the response. At that point, it seemed to have devolved into a public pissing match.

So, who won? Clearly, Medium, which some are calling “the PR Newswire of the social media age.”  PR and media professionals differ over whether the exchange helped either Amazon or the Times.

Unlike many of my peers, I think it was smart for Amazon to leverage Jay Carney’s notoriety and Medium’s status among journalists and influencers to make its case. It was probably worth the risk of making the original story top-of-mind again, but not because Carney’s post changed many opinions. In my view, Amazon haters will continue to believe the worst about the company. Critics of the Times, by the same token, will rail against the paper. Most Amazon Prime members will shrug, and potential Amazon employees will use their own sources to decide whether it’s right for them.

But the Amazon challenge to the world’s most influential news outlet was a warning shot to media who choose to take on Amazon – and very possibly, other big brands with deep pockets and powerful advocates.

In the final analysis, the spat is significant because it signals the elevation of a new combativeness in corporate PR. Corporate communications just got a little nastier, and maybe journalism got a little tougher. Today, smart corporate PR execs and their agencies will put the gloves on to use their most influential allies and the power of social media and brand journalism to challenge an inaccurate story – or even one that is merely unflattering. They’re ready to match the most prestigious media outlet fact for fact, quote for quote, and post for post. As the environment continues to shift, and more journalists and political operatives migrate to the corporate side, there will be more and uglier bruises on both sides.

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Comments

  1. Lou Hoffman

    Hi Dorothy,

    Great topic.

    Insightful post.

    I actually think a “peer-to-peer’ dynamic between PR and the media has been evolving for some time. Thanks to the wonders of digital media, there’s greater opportunity for organizations of all types to take their stories directly to the target audience. Which allows for barking back at a journalist who the organization feels didn’t get it quite right.

    But only companies of a certain weight can go head to head with the NYT like Amazon as well as Walmart and Tesla who have all challenges the NYT over the past year.

    While I have no problem with Amazon challenging the NYT, what I didn’t particularly care for was the company resorting to a smear campaign. It wasn’t necessary and over the long haul, I think it hurts the Amazon brand.

  2. Dorothy Crenshaw

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Lou. I agree that this has been changing for a while – in fact many years ago I recall a client demanding to “videotape the videotaping” of an interview by 60 Minutes to be ready in case of artful editing…a shrewd move. But I agree that only certain companies are likely to be successful. I’d add that I don’t believe the “peer-to-peer” or even ‘hardball” tactics intimidate a publication like NYT, but I do think it sends a message to other, smaller outlets.

  3. David Kalson

    Very thoughtful and well-done piece, Dorothy. The whole Amazon incident brings me back to when companies began rolling their own cameras alongside “60 Minutes” cameras during interviews, so they could publicly challenge the show’s producers with video proof that the aired interview was unfairly edited.

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