Amazon Fought The New York Times and The New York Times Won
Public relations professors throughout the world are already developing lesson plans surrounding the rather public journalist vs. PR battle that recently took place between Amazon and The New York Times (NYT). The debate encompasses many key areas of PR: crisis communications, internal employee communications and the role the media can play in shaping public perception.
But first, a quick rundown of the situation to catch up anyone who might have missed the latest. On August 15th, The New York Times published an in-depth, investigative report outlining Amazon's workplace culture with damning testimonials of several former Amazon employees who provided an inside look at the company's hiring, yearly review and firing processes. The article went viral, seeing over 5,000 comments and 198,460 shares on social media, and spawning a debate across the country on corporate workplace culture. The next day, an Amazon employee penned his own Linkedin post refuting most of the claims, which CEO Jeff Bezos shared proudly with company employees in a memo denying the NYT's allegations. Fast forward two months later when most of America had forgotten about the story...except for Amazon!
On October 19th, Jay Carney, former White House Press Secretary, released a blog post on Medium.com describing what he saw as discrepancies with what the NYT chose to exclude as background about some of the former employees that were key sources within the article. One interesting tidbit within the post is that Jay also admitted to conducting several background meetings with The New York Times, which many PR pros wouldn't ever admit to "on the record". A few hours after Jay's post was published, The New York Times released their own post on Medium.com refuting Jay's piece and standing by the original story. Besides, Medium.com, who has likely gotten more traffic than ever, who is the real winner here?
My vote is The New York Times. Jay's response was too little, too late and reignited a conversation about Amazon's alleged terrible work culture that had already faded. The post would have likely been much more effective if published within a week of the NYT's original article, but by publishing over two months later, he only came across as whining about an article he didn't like in polished legal-friendly corporate speak. The New York Times publishing a rebuff to his response on the same day was just icing on the cake. The publication doesn't have to undergo the long approval process corporations often have to adhere to, allowing the response to come across as genuine and professional and further adding credibility to the original story by pointing out each inconsistency within Jay's post.
Corporations have refuted claims from journalists publicly before. Biotech startup Theranos just did via a statement on their website in response to a scathing Wall Street Journal piece, largely with canned legal language that, similar to Amazon's, didn't say much at all. But the difference with Jay's approach is that he took to a public, not a corporate-owned forum. Anyone can comment, like or share his post - there's no corporate protection with pulling down the article or managing comments. I also wonder if Jay started a precedence that it's okay for brands to argue with journalists publicly. Without any straight factual errors in the NYT piece (it's largely anecdotal), is there any benefit to a company publicly responding as Amazon did?
Additionally, would this have gotten the attention it saw without Jay's name attached? He's arguably the most famous name in PR (other than our favorite fictional star, Scandal's Olivia Pope) from his tenure at the White House. Most of the time with company responses to journalists, the CEO or another C-suite executive is on the byline (even if a PR ghost wrote it). So was attaching Jay's name adding credibility or detracting it?
There's no right or wrong answer to each question, and every communications professional will have a different opinion. But looking at consumer reaction to each, Amazon will likely have a much harder time hiring star employees as they'll have to defend these allegations in interviews for years to come. Meanwhile, The New York Times recently hit record digital subscribers.