Unpacking The Away PR Disaster

DTC luggage company Away replaced Steph Korey as CEO just days after a PR trainwreck of an article by The Verge exposed its punitive work culture. Korey will be kicked upstairs to take an Executive Chairman post and former Lululemon executive Stuart Haselden will step into her old position.

To be clear, Haselden’s hire must have been planned before the “toxic PR” generated by the Verge story. But it’s a perfect time for fresh leadership, and a good way for Korey to be sent packing as a public face of the brand. It didn’t have to be that way.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Yet my first take on the Away reputation mess wasn’t just that workplace culture impacts brand reputation, although that’s true. It’s not only that muzzling workplace dissent is a terrible idea and often backfires, though it does. Or that Korey’s apology was inadequate. Or even that warp-speed growth goals and cult branding pervert work culture — though they often do.

The entire episode tells us something else, too. It’s about one of the key departments Korey oversaw – customer service – and its seemingly impossible standards.

PR, CX and ever-higher expectations

These days, customer relations is public relations, especially for high-growth DTC brands. You can tell a lot about a company by how it handles customer complaints. Businesses spend millions on brand reputation and community service. They hire high-powered PR agencies. But a reputation can unravel quickly when a public-facing employee mistreats a customer, and the customer takes the case to the social mob. In many ways PR and customer relations are two sides of the same coin.

Even more, the Away fiasco shows how brutally hard it is to maintain the CX standard that most of us have come to expect. It’s a standard largely set by Amazon. Lydia Polgreen said it well when she tweeted that “the CX expectations set by behemoths like Amazon are impossible to meet in a humane way and yet set the standard for any DTC business.”

It probably hit me then because I was in the midst of a 9-day effort to cancel, then return, an incorrect Black Friday order from National Grid Marketplace. (National Grid is a company that’s good at getting your gas turned back on after a storm but is comically inept at e-commerce.) My experience involved seven real-time chats with different customer service reps, 14 emails, three phone calls and 29 minutes of phone waiting time. To top it off, each interaction triggered an automatic email customer service survey, but no one addressed the actual problem.

That CX experience was objectively terrible, but most companies are not terrible. Most are even pretty good. Yet given customer expectations, they’re hard pressed to meet an Amazon-like level of customer service.

Remember the New York Times piece that peeled back the wrapper on Amazon’s own cutthroat, exploitative work culture?

(Employees) are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: “Climb the wall.” To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

Sounds like the Verge article. This is not to excuse Korey’s creepy, abusive cult-leader-like tone or her use of “empowerment” language and “brand values” to manipulate employees. Yet we assume that businesses, especially retailers, will strive for an Amazon-like level of customer service because it’s the only way to compete. That comes at a cost, even for well-funded DTC companies like Away. Especially for those companies, because they’re slavishly following the model. For high-growth businesses who need to hit their goals, the customer service bar is forever rising. The only way to balance it with growth demands is to push workers harder. There is a model, and the model is Amazon. Give them part of the credit, and some of the blame, too.

Behind Amazon’s Magic PR Touch

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.

Amazon attracts scrutiny but escapes the worst of the techlash

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.

Bezos earns respect and even admiration amid scandal

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.

Who Were The PR Winners And Losers of 2017?

Yes, 2017 feels like a lifetime ago, given our breakneck news cycle, but there were plenty of public relations lessons over the year for big brands and business categories. Here’s a look at those who came out on top, and others who took a reputation beating last year.

The Winners

Amazon
2017 was like a charmed year for the digital commerce giant. Digital assistant Alexa won pop-culture status, its Prime expansion was successful, and it made a splashy bet on physical supermarkets. But the real PR coup was the reality-show-like sweepstakes to find a second headquarters. The HQ2 search generated a frenzy of positive media coverage as well as 238 proposals from individual North American cities, and it helped cement Amazon’s status as a desired corporate neighbor and employer.

NBC
After “Today” show star Matt Lauer was abruptly fired following allegations of sexual misconduct, it seemed that NBC would take a terrible blow to its reputation. But its swift action and skillful handling of the situation by the remaining on-air talent helped turn things around.  Savannah Guthrie and Hota Kotb announced Lauer’s sudden departure with grace and poignancy – in real time, on live television. That’s harder than it looked, and it was a solid win for the network and its flagship show, whose ratings are up significantly since the change.

Journalism
For the mainstream media, 2017 was a year of ups and downs. The MSM has been aggressively criticized by the president, and public trust in the press hovers at 41%, according to Gallup. Yet most national outlets posted gains in the ways that matter – ratings and readers. What’s more, trust in journalism has actually increased over 2016. After the election, most news organizations got busy reminding us why they’re needed with a renewed commitment to quality reporting. Cable news – which logically should have experienced a downturn after an election year  – reported a huge boost in viewership. Ditto the national newspapers; both The Washington Post and The New York Times broke subscription records. Best of all, journalism organizations like ProPublica and The Center For Public Integrity are enjoying unprecedented support.

Bitcoin
Cryptocurrency had a great year in 2017, breaking through the $10,000 price barrier and throwing off some of its shady reputation. Bitcoin in particular attracted the kind of media coverage that only enhanced its appeal, even when the coverage was skeptical, thanks to the sheer power of blockchain technology. Without a core of innovation, the bitcoin story would be just another fad. But blockchain is seen as “having the potential to reshape the global financial system and possibly other industries,” according to Bloomberg. Despite naysayers, it offered journalists and bloggers the perfect recipe of high-tech and high-risk.

#metoo
Who could have predicted the speed and ruthlessness of the #metoo movement? There’s a reason why Time magazine gained currency for itself and the movement by naming “the silence-breakers” as its Person of the Year. It swept the country like a virus, and, despite valid concerns about a backlash, the impact is far-reaching.

The Losers

Facebook
2017 also brought a reckoning of sorts for Facebook. Remember when Mark Zuckerberg was asked about reports that Russia had peddled “fake news” on its platform to influence the election? He called it a ”pretty crazy” idea. Within weeks, however, Facebook would own up to the fact that it sold more than $100,000 in ads to Russian accounts, and that foreign actors used its feed to spread false and divisive stories about candidates and issues. It’s not alone among social media companies, but the brand has suffered from its casual and misleading response to the situation. As The Verge put it, “Facebook’s inconsistent statements, its history of errors in reporting on its own ad platform, and its reluctance to share relevant data about Russian hacking have added to its credibility gap.”

Uber
Tired of hearing about Uber? That’s because 2017 brought a pile-up of hits to its reputation. In the first quarter alone it was accused of crossing a picket line after the first travel ban, mistreating drivers, and using a secret app to evade regulators. But the real wreck came when engineer Susan Fowler penned a scathing account of her year working there. Fowler wrote about a toxic culture riven by infighting, gender bias and relentless sexual harassment. Like a lit fuse, her post burned through the tech community and exploded into public consciousness. Yet as often happens, the crisis gave Uber the chance to turn the corner on its troubles by replacing founder and CEO Travis Kalanick. New CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was quickly beset with a fresh crisis, though, when news came out that Uber covered up a 2016 hack. Khosrowshahi’s blog post about the situation is a respectable first step in showing transparency, but he has a long way to go. Here’s hoping for smoother road in 2018.

United Airlines
As the world knows, UA hit turbulence with its disastrous handling of a passenger situation that was caught on video. As images of the bloodied man being dragged from his seat by airport police went viral, the airline made things worse with a series of legalistic and tone-deaf public responses. The cultural impact was huge, yet the United crisis also shows business resilience. Its stock price took a hit, and CEO Oscar Munoz was denied a promised promotion to Chairman. But as the outcry grew, United changed its tack. It launched a more authentic apology tour, quietly reached a settlement with the injured passenger, and pledged that nothing similar would ever happen on its planes. The stock price bounced back in short order. In fact, the more lasting impact will be felt in the form of greater customer-service consciousness across the major industry players.

Equifax
Unlike United’s experience, the reputation damage from Equifax’s massive privacy breach will haunt it for years. Not only was it negligent in maintaining security, but it waited months before telling customers that their information might be compromised. Although CEO Richard Smith eventually rose to the occasion with a well-crafted apology, it was too little, too late, and he was voted out by the Equifax board. Its stock price plunged 15% after the breach was announced, and the damage was compounded by the news that Equifax insiders sold shares before it was known. Equifax now faces greater regulatory scrutiny, more Congressional hearings, and a class-action suit by shareholders.

Hollywood
The irony of Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace is that it was so long in coming, yet the collapse was breathtakingly swift. As the dominoes fell in entertainment, journalism, and politics, each company and industry had to grapple with who knew what, and when. The results were often ugly. But the good news is that the awareness of systemic sexual harassment and misbehavior has reached a tipping point, and the cultural and business changes will be profound and in many cases, permanent.

Amazon And The New York Times: Corporate PR Gets Tough

The 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.

Amazon was late in responding, but shrewd in using Medium

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.

6 Learnings From A Negative PR Situation

Tech PR pros and others have been buzzing about the recent, highly unflattering feature about Amazon in The New York Times. The piece has triggered debate about whether proactive PR can help prevent or respond to such a situation.

In this case I think PR’s power to prevent or preempt the story is exaggerated, based on the amount of research it contained and the participation by Amazon’s HR chief. But Amazon isn’t a typical company. For most businesses, there are ways to mitigate or at least prepare for a negative story in the making.

Participate, but with caution. When media decide to cover a story, you can’t stop it, but if you participate, you can often exert some influence over the outcome. Don’t waste your time trying to muzzle employees or identify antagonists; journalists will find sources whether you like it or not. So it’s usually better to offer access so as to be aware of what is being said. A good reporter won’t necessarily accept your version of the situation, but they will offer you the chance to rebut or respond. Take it.

Leverage company champions. Supporters of your company, whether cheerleading employees, longtime stakeholders, or super-users of its products and services, can be useful in balancing negative coverage. Good relationships with stakeholders and outside experts are like money in the reputation bank; you can sometimes tap them to help when the pressure is on. Even if you can’t get them in the story, you can be ready to respond after it hits.

Respond to inaccuracies. If a story is inaccurate or seems to distort aspects of the situation, respond.  Move quickly to correct facts, expand where context is absent, or offer another point of view. Although Amazon doesn’t typically respond to negative press, CEO Jeff Bezos did react to the Times piece in an internal memo that was clearly intentionally leaked to the press. Interested parties will be more likely to see your side if they know how you feel, even if they do not agree, and those on your side will feel more empowered to speak up.

Revisit media training for key spokespersons. Senior executives and other media spokespersons should always be prepared for media inquiries, but it’s challenging, because you cannot predict when reporters will reach out for a comment after a story is underway. But the thing to remember here is that most negative developments don’t arise out of nowhere; they’re usually simmering situations or errors that have been made before. A risk assessment and quarterly media preparation is always helpful if a negative situations looms, or simply when key officers need to be updated with fresh information about business practices.

Build a bridge between PR and HR. This is most applicable to stories like the Times article that depicted Amazon’s workplace and culture. But HR will typically feel the repercussions of any negative coverage in the responses of of employees or attitudes of potential recruits. Make sure the HR team has an opportunity to debrief with PR to address concerns and reconnect over communications goals and needs.

Look for the benefit. Sometimes there isn’t one. But many times a company can actually turn a negative situation into positive PR. If the brand or business was unfairly criticized or if it’s been affected by forces beyond its control (like a weather disaster or a rogue employee), it can win sympathy. If it’s responsible for mishandling a situation, or, worse, covering up a mistake, there may be an opportunity to admit errors, be transparent, and ultimately turn the conversation to the fix. Once action has been taken to address the problem, the business may be able to channel that negative visibility into a fresh marketing direction and a new commitment to proactive communication.

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.
 

Public Relations Is A Powerful Storytelling Tool

Brand storytelling and PR – what’s really new here? The truth is, marketers have been telling brand stories through paid media, branded events, and, lately, brand journalism, also known as owned media. Make no mistake, a well-crafted 30-second television spot can tell a resonant story. But the heart of brand storytelling lies with public relations.

I first heard the term from my friend Robbie Vorhaus, at least a decade ago. Robbie was ahead of his time. It took a few more years for storytelling to become a buzzword, and for public relations to realize that it’s what we do.  To paraphrase Seth Godin, “Marketing PR isn’t about the stuff you sell; it’s about the stories you tell.” Here’s why.

PR breaks news. A new product or, even better, a new category, means a fresh story. Traditional public relations tactics are therefore inherently valuable in helping to break and shape those stories. While true category creators are rare, any business or brand that disrupts the status quo has a huge opportunity to define its category and own the narrative over the long term.  Think about Amazon, Starbucks, Red Bull, and Facebook. Different categories, but each was a creator, and each was able to craft a unique brand narrative through traditional and social media. In most cases, it happened without benefit of advertising or direct marketing.

PR digs deep.  A well-crafted public relations campaign can typically go much deeper than paid media. Advertising space and time comes at a cost, so explanations about brand origins, background, or how things work take a back seat to a sales message. The backstory is particularly valuable in healthcare and technology PR sectors, where products often require a degree of education. Storytelling naturally lends itself to earned media, including long-form journalism and blogging. As a bonus, it’s often more credible.

Brand trust is at a premium. Corporate scandals, executive misbehavior, privacy breaches – these and more have been amplified by the relentless news cycle, and they’ve threatened public trust in major brands. Moreover, millennials, the largest demographic in the U.S., are known to be skeptical of traditional marketing and advertising. It adds up to a picture where brand stories told by others – customers, stakeholders, partners, and journalists, – have greater resonance than those told by the companies themselves.

PR blends creative packaging with a journalistic sensibility.  We specialize in grabbing the attention of journalists and influencers with a story pitch that plays up what is relevant and compelling about the narrative;  in other words, we package the story. Yet, to rise to the top, it needs to conform to a journalist’s needs; the classic “who, what, when, where, and why” that seizes an editor’s attention and makes it legitimate.

PR connects the dots. A skilled practitioner knows how to make connections between brand messages and attributes and other, larger stories. And its outcome is ultimately about building a bridge between a brand and its audience.

Download your tipsheet to learn about five powerful PR strategies for brand storytelling.







Newspaper 2.0?

Friday’s report that Hearst will launch a wireless e-reader for magazines and newspapers, similar to Amazon’s Kindle, is deeply encouraging news for those of us who hope that reports of the death of traditional media are exaggerated.

It’s a risky venture, to be sure; hardware is a completely different business from content, and not all the reviews have been kind. But, many of its critics miss the point. The e-reader plan, coming from a giant publisher like Hearst, is an example of the kind of bold experimentation that’s necessary if newspapers are to survive and the traditional advertising model is to be reinvented. The goal of the venture seems not only to give Amazon some competition. It’s also about recapturing precious ad dollars that are leaving mainstream media in an online format well-suited to a magazine or newspaper, while slashing production costs.

Whether it survives or not, the more options that are on the table, the better for consumers, publishers, and even advertisers. In a year, there will be far more alternatives to the Kindle. The final chapter is far from written.