A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 13, 2020

The Reason Amazon's PR Campaigns Keep Blowing Up In the Company's Face

A tone deaf approach to managing organizational - or personal - reputation tends to come when the principals fear no consequences for their actions. JL

Casey Newton reports in The Verge:

Amazons’s policymaking through self-congratulation for a rich tech giant seems surprisingly tone-deaf: able to create so many jobs because it excels at crushing competition; work in fulfillment centers, where workers are injured at four times average, or at headquarters, where employees were found crying at their desks. Bezos has been more effective at managing the story around his personal life - that involved divorce, blackmail, and a WhatsApp-based attack by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia than he has at managing the story about Amazon’s day-to-day business practices.
A little over a year ago, when Amazon’s phony “search” for a site for a second “headquarters” was revealed to be a sham, I noted that for a rich tech giant the company seemed surprisingly tone-deaf. A billion-dollar giveaway to one of the world’s biggest corporations caused an outcry with the electorate and their representatives. As a result, the deal that Amazon negotiated for itself in New York City blew up, forcing the company to pay for office space with its own money rather than taxpayers’.
In the aftermath of that debacle, I wondered if the company might be chastened, or even apologetic. Instead, though, it has plowed ahead with the confidence of the god Maui in Moana — and the response to any criticism has been a smug “You’re Welcome.” The basic idea, borrowed from Steve Jobs-era Apple, is to cow any critics by referring loudly and constantly to the company’s successes.
The latest example of Amazons’s policymaking through self-congratulation comes from Jay Carney, the company’s public relations chief. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Carney reminisces about the time Sen. Bernie Sanders called him to praise Amazon raising its minimum wage to $15. (That’s an annual salary of $31,200; meanwhile, CEO Jeff Bezos made $4.1 billion selling Amazon stock in the past 11 days alone.)
The point of this reminiscence is to take credit for doing more than the absolute least that Amazon could do, while attempting to shift the pressure for improving worker conditions back onto members of Congress like Sanders:
We know $15 is not a lot. In fact, we believe $15 should be the minimum anyone in the United States is paid for an hour of labor, and in most areas of the country our starting wage is even higher. But while the debate about Amazon’s impact at times focuses on how our hourly jobs compare to jobs of the past, or to an idealized vision of the future, the truth is that more than 40 million Americans earn less than the lowest-paid Amazon associate. For many people, a job at one of our fulfillment centers is by far the best option available in their region. And we are proud of that — even as we agree that our political and business leaders must work together to create more and better options for all America’s workers.
One place to start: Raise the federal minimum wage to $15 from its current rate of $7.25 — something only members of Congress like Senator Sanders can do. If Congress were to follow our lead, all it would take to greatly improve the lives of America’s lowest-paid workers is the president’s signature.
It’s certainly a good thing that Amazon pays more than the federal minimum wage. And it’s also a good thing that Amazon creates lots of jobs, even if it’s able to create so many jobs in part because it excels at crushing competition. (Diapers.com might have hired a lot of people, and continued to exist, had Amazon not dropped prices by 30 percent in an effort to drive it out of business.)
But there are at least two big issues that Carney glosses over while patting his company on the back. The first is that many of the jobs that Amazon creates come with brutal working conditions. Whether it’s the back-breaking work in fulfillment centers, where workers are seriously injured at four times the industry average, or white-collar work at headquarters, where a 2015 investigation found that employees were constantly found crying at their desks, Amazon has a lot to answer for. (Carney responded to the latter case with a legendarily peevish Medium post in which he denigrated several former employees by name, attacked the integrity of the reporters who wrote it, and said almost nothing in defense of what he called the company’s “demanding culture.”)
The second big issue glossed over in Carney’s op-ed is that all those jobs the company is creating can come with terrible externalities. For example, BuzzFeed last year connected Amazons’ relentless push for faster deliveries to hundreds of delivery vehicle accidents, resulting in at least six fatalities. When BuzzFeed’s reporters pointed this out on Twitter, Carney was characteristically dismissive:
Compare our jobs to the alternatives. Find an alternative - not imaginary - that provides the pay and benefits we provide. And, if you want to be a political advocate and not a reporter, I applaud that. I did both. But don’t pretend you’re one when you’re really the other.
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Not wanting people to get run over Amazon delivery vehicles does not, in my opinion, make you a “political advocate.” Nor does writing about the phenomenon strike me as being outside the bounds of good journalism. In truth there’s very little daylight between this kind of lazy, pouty everyone’s-out-to-get-us media criticism and the president’s daily torrent of fake news / witch hunt verbal diarrhea. Some of which is aimed at ... Jeff Bezos, in his capacity as owner of the Washington Post.
In both his private actions and his public comments, Bezos has been a strong supporter of a free and independent press. Which makes it all the stranger that his chief attack dog for nearly five years has been so dismissive of one. Even more so because the primary effect of that attitude has been to build enormous and consequential blind spots.
Perhaps Amazon will learn that lesson eventually. In the meantime it’s striking that Bezos has been so much more effective at managing the story around his colorful personal life — a story that has recently involved divorce, blackmail, and a WhatsApp-based attack by the the crown prince of Saudi Arabia — than he has been at managing the story about Amazon’s day-to-day business practices. Then again, it’s always easier to play the victim when you actually are one.


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