When it comes to warning about the dangers of appointing Washington flacks for senior corporate PR positions, I seem to be a chorus of one. The Beltway is home to a unique breed of PR folks with their own definitions of ethical conduct and fair play, and their practice of leaking, spinning and seeking to destroy reputations already has resulted in some dubious business outcomes. This Town, by New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich, richly captures the D.C. culture that I’m talking about.
Jay Carney, the former Obama press secretary who was named head of Amazon’s global corporate affairs earlier this year, has emerged as another politico who doesn’t appreciate that the brass knuckle tactics commonly practiced in Washington aren’t appropriate for major corporations. Carney last week posted a 1,300-plus word essay on the website Medium seeking to discredit a Times article about Amazon’s workplace culture, a move that speaks more about Carney’s judgment and character than the journalism he seeks to discredit.
The Times story, which ran on August 15, was unquestionably one of the most damning corporate profiles in recent memory. Loaded with anecdotes highlighting the grueling hours and horrific pressures employees supposedly endure, it included this doozy comment by a former employee: "Nearly everyone I worked with I saw cry at their desks." The Times claims it was one of the newspaper’smost popular stories this year, with nearly 6,000 reader comments, many of which ended in righteous vows not to do business with Amazon again.
Yet as bad as the story was, it didn’t adversely affect Amazon’s business. The company's revenues surged 23 percent during the quarter in which the story appeared. Amazon’s employee count was also up 49 percent compared to the same time period in 2014, and the company said it plans to hire an additional 100,000 holiday workers.
Carney’s diatribe in Medium is alarming on several levels. He whines that the Amazon story the Times published wasn’t the one that Jodi Kantor, the lead reporter, promised. As a former Time reporter, Carney knows full well that reporters—or their editors—routinely change their storylines after completing their reporting.
Regardless, journalists betraying their sources is a longstanding PR risk. If Carney and his PR team decided the Times' reporters on the story were among the increasingly limited number of journalists worth actively engaging, they need to assume responsibility for the resulting outcome.
Incredulously, Carney discusses details of employee reviews that responsible companies would never allow to be made public. Anyone potentially interested in working at Amazon should be more concerned by Amazon’s willingness to publicly discuss employee reviews than the information contained in the Times article.
Most alarming, Carney alleges that the former employee who the Times said witnessed his colleagues crying at their desks worked at Amazon only briefly and resigned "after an investigation revealed he had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records." Carney names the former employee, but he cowardly chooses not to show responses to his essay so the former employee can’t publicly respond.
Even if that accusation is perhaps true, which the Times says the former employee denies, it reinforces the image of the toxic workplace storyline Carney’s trying to dismantle.
Companies that have poor employee relations or ruthless Darwinian cultures seemingly are more prone to attract or breed employees that allegedly engage in illegal or dishonest behavior, such as Walmart (bribery scandal), United Airlines (corruption scandal), and Goldman Sachs (cheating scandal) and (Federal Reserve leak scandal), to cite just a few examples.
The irony of Carney’s response to the Times story is that if any company should be nonplussed by a negative media story it’s Amazon. The mainstream media, for most of Amazon’s early years, ran a steady drumbeat of stories questioning the company’s viability. Amazon’s view of the press was such that it even passed on opportunities for positive media coverage: Years ago Amazon declined to be interviewed by Businessweek when the company first made the magazine’s top brands survey. I recall a spokesman being quoted as saying to the effect, “Our brand is simply providing a great customer experience.”
Underscoring how Washington politicos have no experience building or representing credible brands, it’s quite telling that Carney’s essay makes not even a passing reference to Amazon’s core message.
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