Amazon’s Preemptive PR Strike Hits Home

Talk about a PR bombshell. After dropping hints that he would unveil a “big surprise” on Sunday’s “60 Minutes” program, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos launched a preemptive Cyber Monday PR strike…with a drone.

As the highlight of a feature segment that went behind the scenes of the company’s vast holiday delivery operation (kind of a digital Santa’s workshop), Bezos demonstrated a half-hour transport service that’s straight out of The Jetsons. (Look it up, kids.) Called Amazon Prime Air, it works like this: a specially equipped drone called an octocopter picks up a package at the end of a conveyor belt in a fulfillment center, takes flight, and effects a gentle landing at your doorstep.

Hot air? Pie-in-the-sky? Maybe, but this is of the genius variety. After all, the Amazon logistics story has been told and is even a little tired. We’ve heard about its warehouse expansion plans, private label offerings, and new categories. It was time for a fresh notion. What could be better than a package-bearing drone? It was a deux-ex-machina of a PR placement.

Problem is, the delivery drones are at least five years away, and the FAA won’t issue rules before 2015. So, the octocopter story may be more about hype than anything else. Amazon has drawn some criticism for the PR stunt, as has Charlie Rose, whose gushy interview style matched Bezos’s own boyish demeanor and included awestruck comments like, “You guys can organize the world.”

But let’s give credit where it’s due. As much as it served as a well-time holiday commercial for the Amazon delivery operation, the thing that made the segment go viral was the sci-fi touch. The real point wasn’t as much about Cyber Monday or drones as it was about two consistent Amazon brand attributes: innovation, and what Bezos calls its “customer-centricity.”  Even amid some transparently canned one-liners in response to criticism (“Complaining is not a strategy”), Bezos delivered on his message points.
We may be waiting a few more years, or decades, for those drones at our doorstep, but there’s no doubt what Amazon is trying to communicate, and I’d say they delivered.

A PR Review Of The Best And Worst Public Apologies

Given the accelerated pace of social media sharing, a simple slip can quickly escalate to something approaching a PR crisis. Sometimes the “crisis” is partly imaginary, and in other cases, it could be nipped with one simple thing: a sincere, well-crafted public apology.

Problem is, apologizing is a dying communications art. Here’s an analysis of a few recent mea culpas.

Home Depot needed a quick fix after a Twitter update about a college football promotion that many saw as racist. After it kicked off a storm of criticism, the company deleted the post and replaced it with an apology that called it “stupid and offensive.” It fired the company behind the social updates and tweeted individual messages to everyone who complained. It was the same, formulaic apology to all, but 140 characters isn’t much, and in my book, it deserves credit for the swift and contained handling of the issue. Nothing more was needed; the tweets delivered the necessary brand repairs.

Lululemon founder Chip Wilson also slipped during a Bloomberg interview about his wife’s meditation site. What should have been a cakewalk turned into a lulu of an interview when he was asked about the company’s product recall and complaints of fabric pilling. Caught short, Wilson meandered through an awkward response, saying “some women’s bodies don’t work” and blaming problems on “rubbing through the thighs.”  The actual comment isn’t so terrible, but it rubbed some people the wrong way, including Lulu fans.

The gaffe had such, um, legs, that, a week later, Wilson posted an apology video on Facebook. Wilson’s delivery is sincere, but the message lacks context, and it seems directed to Lulu employees, which is confusing. The negative comments posted may signal that the escalation of the apology was an unnecessary exercise.

A far graver mea culpa was delivered on Sunday by CBS broadcast journalist Lara Logan. During the final minute of “60 Minutes” Logan apologized for a story the network had run October 27 about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. It seems the story, which the network had stoutly defended, featured a star eyewitness, a state department security contractor who said he was at the U.S. compound, but whose incident report about the raid placed him elsewhere. Logan admitted errors, explaining that the network was “misled” by its source, and ending by saying it was “deeply sorry.” There was no real explanation of what seems like a highly avoidable mistake, nor did Logan mention the network’s failure to disclose that a CBS subsidiary is publishing a tell-all book by the same security officer. Hmmm. Highly embarrassing, and CBS did itself no favors with the terse and wholly inadequate apology.

But the mother of all public apologies has to belong to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. As the world knows, after months of stonewalling, Ford admitted to using crack cocaine to a gaggle of media. The admission was extraordinary for a few reasons. First, Ford blamed his previous denials on the journalists’ failure to “ask the right questions.”  To that nonsensical justification, he added his excuse;  the drug use occurred, said Ford, “during one of my drunken stupors.”

As late-night talk show hosts reveled in the comedy of Ford’s confession, the Mayor delivered a direct apology to the city in which he took responsibility for “letting them down.”  But the mea culpa was pretty half-baked. Ford left without facing media questions, never responding to calls for his resignation and without any pledge to avoid drug use or consider that he might have an addiction problem. In fact, he seemed to pat himself on the back, calling his apology “the right thing to do” and confessing, “I have nothing left to hide.”  Perhaps that’s true, but there’s much more to say here, and the Ford story is probably far from over.