Big Tech’s reputation has taken a beating lately. Facebook’s clumsy handling of its data privacy scandals has been a PR and government relations disaster. Apple always had a love-hate relationship with the press but was admired for its innovation. Recently it has lost that luster, and the bizarre FaceTime bug dented its status as a security model. Google, too, faces data privacy challenges, as well as periodic revolts by its own workforce. Over the past year it was forced to abandon millions in lucrative military contracts and it’s now under pressure over plans to build a censored search engine in China.
Somehow, Amazon has escaped the worst of the techlash, at least for now. Take data privacy, for example. As a retailer and also a marketplace, Amazon has steadily grown its digital advertising business and now may pose a real threat to Google and Facebook.
Regulators don’t seemed too concerned yet, but Amazon knows what we buy, where we live, what we read and watch, and what we say to Alexa. It collects a huge amount of data from consumers who are in shopping mode and will only grow as an ad platform. The privacy implications are clear, but no one’s really pressing the case.
Amazon has also been deft in managing its reputation as a tough employer and indifferent corporate citizen. After being blamed for soaring housing prices, homelessness, and overcrowding in Seattle, its response was a “Bachelor”-style sweepstakes to find a new office, brilliantly packaged as HQ2 – a second headquarters. The search reaped huge PR benefits over a period of 14 months, as well as a gold mine of data about major U.S. markets among the 238 proposals received. It was a masterful campaign that helped change Amazon’s image to one of a desirable corporate neighbor and employer.
Of course, the positive PR was laced with cynicism, and its plans to open an office in Long Island City, New York triggered an unexpected backlash. So, what did Amazon do? Rather than face months or years of protests from locals, it simply bowed out. Now the onus is on the city to explain why 25,000 jobs won’t be materializing. Advantage, Amazon.
It’s also interesting that on the same day, the Institute on Taxation and Economic policy reported that Amazon’s tax bill for 2018 – based on $11.2 billion in profits – was exactly $0. The absurd number should have set off a wave of negative stories, given Amazon’s long history of skirting sales and other taxes. But lucky for Amazon, the tax story was mostly eclipsed by both its own announcement that it would scrap the New York plan, as well as the runup to Trump’s state of emergency declaration. As they say, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart. In this case, Amazon was both.
The most stunning PR moves of all, of course, have come from Jeff Bezos himself. His acquisition of The Washington Post may or may not have been a move to launder his own reputation, but if so, it worked. Years after the Google and Facebook started sucking up digital ad revenue from newspapers and other media, even hard-bitten observers admit that the billionaire rescue model has worked. (Never mind that Amazon is the next adtech giant.)
One consequence of the WaPo deal was that it made Bezos a Trump target on Twitter – eliciting sympathy, or at least schadenfreude, from the elite. But the The coup de grace was the recent AMI scandal. Media and pundits cheered when Bezos called out David Pecker’s National Enquirer on what looks like a blatant extortion racket.
It’s hard not to hope that Bezos uses his billions to shut down AMI and its sleazy shenanigans. And if there are disturbing parallels to Peter Thiel’s suit against Gawker, well, most of us will try not to think too hard about it. Given the hints Bezos dropped about Saudi Arabia and more rocks to be turned over in his startlingly candid post, the situation seems to involve more “complexifiers” and higher stakes – at least that’s what we hope.
It takes a lot for a billionaire tech mogul who put storied retailers out of business and squeezes billions in tax credits from state and local governments on the backs of part-time workers to be a champion, but that’s where we are. Bezos and Amazon may not be the heroes we need, but maybe they’re the ones we deserve.