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, 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.