Who’s Winning The PR Space Race?

The new space race is on, but this time, instead of a PR challenge among competing governments and clashing ideologies, it’s a pissing contest among billionaire entrepreneurs…with phallic imagery to match. Or so it seems.

The national press has chronicled the space flights with live saturation coverage so far. Maybe it’s a welcome break from political squabbling and divisive COVID-19 stories, but the fawning by broadcast media is almost embarrassing. Yet I admit to following the billionaire space race, if only to observe the comms strategies behind each brand. Who’s coming out on top?

Branson takes the early lead

Among the contenders, PR stuntmeister Richard Branson was first to launch into space on July 11 — at least figuratively. Technically, Branson’s Virgin Galactic fell short, because it never made it past the internationally recognized space border known as the Kármán line. But Branson wins points for being clearest when it comes to messaging. His goal is to launch space tourism as a global industry, period. It’s one more commercial enterprise for him and Virgin, so there’s been minimal posturing about saving the planet or promoting scientific breakthroughs. He also deserves credit for skillful and compassionate handling of the fatal crash and death of a test pilot 7 years ago. The tragedy could well have killed his space ambitions.

Yet despite his first-mover advantage, I found Branson’s optics a little lacking. I’m old enough to remember the glory days of the NASA program, with its thrilling rocket launches and cinematic splashdowns, so a choppy video of zero-G inside a plane felt a bit like a bad Zoom. Branson nearly made up for the lack of visuals with the swashbuckling enthusiasm he brings to everything he does, however. He’s his own best brand spokesperson, and he always delivers. It’s hard not to admire it, mostly because it feels real, and that makes it infectious.

Bezos delivers on optics

Yesterday Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin took its turn. Here, the visuals were much stronger, and the storyline was an updated version of the space programs of yore. It wasn’t subtle. The rocket system is boldly dubbed New Shepard, after the Mercury astronaut, and its maiden voyage crew included something for everyone, PR-wise. There were plenty of sidebars! Bezos himself was the star, along with his brother, which tugged at the boyhood-dream heartstrings. Then there was the 82-year-old woman who was denied a place in the U.S. space program of the 60s, making the flight a deferred dream and her the oldest person in space. Rounding things out for Gen-Zers, there was a Dutch teenager who qualified as the youngest space traveler to date. Great stuff.

The New Shepard spacecraft itself was tricked out with comfy and luxurious reclining seats and massive windows to better gawk at the view of Earth from the edge of space. Most importantly, we watched a real NASA-style liftoff (which also launched a thousand penis jokes on Twitter). The payoff was the capsule’s graceful glide down to a Texas desert landing as it was held aloft by parachutes. It was beautiful stagecraft.

The media trumps the message

For me, however, Blue Origin’s messaging was more muddled than Branson’s. Bezos started with vague comments about important discoveries that space travel might bring, followed by hollow statements about making it “accessible” to everyone. (This, after an anonymous billionaire paid $28 million at an auction for the privilege but didn’t show up due to a “scheduling conflict.”)  After the flight, he rambled giddily about the population potential of the solar system, explaining that if we had “a trillion humans, we would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources and solar power.” Come again?

Meanwhile, the Blue Origin video about the flight was a stilted, lengthy, and overproduced chore. On the positive side, Blue Origin claims the funds raised from the auction will support a nonprofit called Club for the Future that supports STEM careers for kids. The Club for the Future website focuses on future space travel, so it’s unclear if there’s a commitment to other STEM studies.

More memorably, Bezos himself capped things off with a bizarre cowboy hat and a tone-deaf thank-you that backfired. In a post-launch presser, he exulted, “I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this.” It served only to dredge up stories about harsh working conditions at Amazon and highlighted the contrast between Bezos’s status and that of the average Amazon worker.

So, who’s the winner? So far, I’d say it’s a draw. But the good (or bad) news is that the PR space race is far from over. It will fuel countless stories as we all stay tuned to see what kind of spectacle Elon Musk will dream up for later this year. But Musk’s SpaceX is already functioning as a government contractor, hauling NASA astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, deploying satellites to enable internet, and setting its sights on a mission to Mars. Its role in the bigger picture is clear.

In search of our mission

There are a thousand reasons to be cynical about the new space race. It’s staggeringly expensive, and the funds aren’t limited to private investment; taxpayer dollars are involved, too. Many note that the money devoted to space tourism could be better invested in solutions to pressing problems here on earth. If you look at it literally, a handful of superrich white guys have spent millions on joyrides that accomplish a fraction of what our government did decades ago. But there’s potential for so much more.

Above all, the new space travel contest is in search of a mission. If the mission is simply to popularize and privatize space travel, that’s great. Watching the birth of a new industry is exciting, and it comes with lots of benefits, like jobs, investment, and the potential for new discoveries. But I can’t help but think the whole thing cries out for a higher-order benefit, or at least a unifying principle that binds us together when we need it most. I’ve always thought of John F. Kennedy’s moonshot speech as a classic example of thought leadership. In that case, the young president’s words were designed to inspire business and technical innovation, a popular interest in science, and a sense of being all in it together.

The billionaires and their PR storytellers have taken pains to appeal to different audience segments. The messaging is polished, but it’s hollow and self-serving. They offer an entertaining spectacle, a polished press outreach, and high production values, but the mission is anything but inclusive. As Talia Lavin writes of the latest space flights, “While the rich sail to the stars the rest of us are left to toil in gravity’s bounds.”

How Jeff Bezos Scored A PR Win

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.

Negotiate well

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.

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.

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.
 

Zappos And The Social Media Myth

It’s a common perception that Zappos, which was just acquired by Amazon.com, was able to build its brand, and even its business, on the strength of social media.  After all, CEO Tony Hsieh is a Twitter celebrity with over a million followers.  Zappos encourages its employees to Twitter, and more than 400 do. A model of transparency, it aggregates public mentions on a page on its website.  No wonder it’s been hailed by traditional and social media as the one company that does it right.  One writer even opined that Amazon was motivated to acquire Zappos to get a little of its “social media stardust.”

That’s nonsense. The soul of Zappos, and the open secret of its success, has nothing to do with Twitter. It bears remembering that long before Hsieh tweeted his first update, Zappos had taken the lead in the online shoe market. Hsieh’s really big idea wasn’t showing his personal side on Twitter.  It was making returns a competitive advantage. It was, in essence, beating Amazon at its own game. It was focusing, really focusing, on the customer.  And, to Zappos, customers are not only shoppers, but employees and vendors, too.

If you search for articles and posts about Hsieh and Zappos long prior to 2008, when he opened his celebrated Twitter account, your eyes will glaze over at the numbing repetition of its customer service mantra. Hsieh describes the employee recruiting and training program, including the counter-intuitive “quitting bonus,” as shaping a customer service culture. He philosophizes about transparency, openness, and authenticity – all in service of the customer, of course.  He, and the partners who back him, take the long view on the company’s ultra-liberal returns policy, betting that no investment is too great if it supports customer retention.

Basically, Hsieh did two things very, very well. He articulated a customer-obsessed culture. Then, he walked the talk. Social media came naturally for Zappos later because the company never looked at it as a marketing channel, but as another way of building customer relationships and adding service.  In essence, the shoe fit.

Jeff Bezos doesn’t give a rap about Zappos’ social media profile. As Bezos himself said in describing its customer service obsession, “It is the place where Zappos begins and ends.”  I’m hoping that, for Zappos, this is a new beginning, and not an end.