Not every billionaire CEO needs a big public relations team, apparently – just ask Elon Musk. But many successful founders do have an innate grasp of PR and media strategy. Sure, communications skills are learned, and years of experience really count in the PR biz. But when it comes to the hand-to-hand combat of media relations, an instinct for the game surely helps.
That’s the conclusion that Bloomberg Businessweek’s Brad Stone came to about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his tangle with the National Enquirer in 2019. In an excerpt from his new book, Amazon Unbound, Stone offers a fascinating tick-tock on the PR melodrama that played out after the Enquirer published salacious photos and texts involving the then-married Bezos and paramour Lauren Sanchez. The story reads like a thriller. In Stone’s words, “It’s a tale that involves a scheming Hollywood manager, desperate tabloid newspaper editors, and spurious claims of political intrigue and international espionage. It’s also a look into Jeff Bezos’s mind and how he thinks unconventionally and always manages to come out on top.”
Precisely. Now, I don’t agree that Bezos is a PR mastermind in every sense of the word. In the first place, he could have likely avoided the scandal if he had behaved with more circumspection. It doesn’t take a media relations genius to figure that the press would at some point be all over the details of a new relationship that he didn’t bother to hide. But maybe that’s how moguls are.
The fascinating aspects of the Bezos tabloid scandal are instructive. If you unpack Stone’s behind-the-scenes story, you’ll spot some familiar and not-so-familiar PR rules about how to turn around a negative story. And Bezos played them perfectly.
Preempt bad news where possible
“Get ahead of the story” is time-honored advice offered by PR experts to public figures on the edge of a nasty revelation. It nearly always holds up. On Monday, January 7, the Enquirer emailed Bezos “to request an interview with you about your love affair.” Bezos didn’t know it yet, but someone had tipped off the tabloid about the relationship. Sanchez’s own brother slipped it cozy photos of the couple together, screenshots of sexy texts, and details of future assignations so the paper could get its own photos. Bezos had to have been caught off-guard, but he didn’t flinch. He moved quickly, instructing his PR team to announce the news of his divorce by Wednesday morning. He thus gained a measure of control over the story and was able to lay it out on his own terms. The Enquirer, a weekly with a Monday pub date, had to rush out a special issue to protect its scoop. Bezos wasn’t able to stop the stories, but he avoided a reactive announcement of his marital status with a dignified statement about the couple’s decision to split.
What followed the first flurry of stories about Bezos and Sanchez was a classic tabloid quid-pro-quo. The Enquirer wanted fresh material to move the story forward. Bezos decided to negotiate, but from a point of strength. The tabloid ultimately agreed to stop running the old photos and texts in exchange for an exclusive paparazzi shot of Sanchez in an airport. It was a low-stakes concession by team Bezos. The assurance that no more surprise photos or story angles would pop up — at least for a while — enabled Bezos to plan his counteroffensive.
Exploit your opponent’s weakness
This is a business maxim as old as Machiavelli, but it’s often relevant in a tough media relations situation. When Bezos was originally ambushed by the Enquirer, the tabloid held most of the cards. But it also had a big problem. Its shenanigans around “catch and kill” stories about ex-president Trump had caught the attention of SDNY prosecutors who smelled a possible campaign finance violation. The publication was on thin ice, financially weak and fearful of prosecution. Bezos was able to exploit its vulnerability in his ultimate response. That turned out to be a masterstroke, even though it wasn’t wholly true.
Tap specialist expertise
Suspicious about the leaked photos and worried about what was next, Bezos involved his longtime security consultant, Gavin de Becker, in his media counteroffensive. de Becker was more than a hired gun. He boasts a distinguished career and is a published author and recognized security expert. In an interview granted to the Daily Beast, de Becker fingered Sanchez’s brother as the tipster, which only elicited sympathy for the couple. More importantly, he implied that Bezos was targeted because of Trump’s resentment of him as the owner of The Washington Post. The security consultant’s status lent credibility to the accusation and focused attention on the Enquirer’s reputation as an apologist, and possible bagman, for former president Trump.
Disintermediate the press
They call it “media” for a reason. But today it’s easy for a powerful personality to disintermediate the MSM and go directly to the public with a message. It’s a strategy that arguably propelled Donald Trump – another high-level PR practitioner — to the presidency. Trump famously maligned the mainstream media and used Twitter as his direct platform of choice, and his example wasn’t lost on the rich and powerful. Bezos didn’t need to disparage media as Trump did; after all, he owns one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world. But he responded publicly to the National Enquirer’s offer of a “deal” not just in the media, but in a powerful personal essay on Medium, the social publishing platform. Of course it was picked up by every media outlet in the country.
Change the story
This was Bezos’s slam dunk. After skillfully using earned media to highlight his own version of the story, he went for the jugular in the Medium post. He used emails from the Enquirer’s owner, AMI, to his attorney to accuse the tabloid of extortion. As a coup de grace, he reported on his own embarrassing texts and suggested that the leaks amounted to political retribution. Astonishingly, he implied – without evidence — that the texts and photos were accessed by people with links to the Saudi Arabian government. The theory was that the Saudis were angered by WaPo’s reporting that Prince Mohammed bin Salman was linked to the murder of columnist Jamal Kashoggi. The bold charge that the Enquirer was trying to wreak political payback for Trump, and that a foreign actor might even be involved, was devastating.
It was a pretty cynical move. Instead of a tawdry backstabbing by his girlfriend’s brother, Bezos implied that foreign actors were trying to destroy his reputation for geopolitical reasons. Even today, there’s no evidence of that. But its impact was like a one-two punch. It was a twist on the game that celebrities play to challenge and blame powerful media brands for negative coverage. In this scenario, Bezos is the rich and powerful one, but he deftly turned the tables on the tabloid and used its sleazy past against it. By coming clean about his personal situation, he cast himself as a principled defender of journalism, truth, even democracy.
There’s a lot to question here, because the whole things boils down to a shady little shakedown of an indiscreet business mogul. But it’s also a pretty impressive master class in PR and media relations, or at least, tabloid relations. Bottom line, the whole messy episode is a footnote in Bezos’s life and career, and his reputation has probably never been stronger. That’s power.