• Tuesday, July 23, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

How not to manage a PR crisis (2)

How not to manage a PR crisis (2)

What Amazon should have done

1. Have a communications strategy

To the observant communications professional, it was obvious that Amazon had no real Crisis Management communications strategy. Such a strategy would dictate first of all who is to respond to a crisis with a public statement, what the content of the statement would be and through which medium the statement would be released.

From the start, Amazon was on the back foot. Nick Ciubotariu is an engineer in a masculine, college-bro environment. He is not a communications expert and he has no business putting up a rejoinder on his LinkedIn page. A communications strategy would have placed the responsibility for engaging Amazon’s publics on the desk of someone with the relevant skill set.

An engineer working for a company with a clearly defined strategy for dealing with media firestorms would know that under no circumstances should he wake up in the morning and fire off a response to the New York Times describing its article as something which “polluted his news feed.

“While you cannot necessarily have the media on your side all the time, particularly as a big business, you cannot come across as unduly combative toward it either. You do not want the New York Times counting itself as your adversary. Even the best image management consultants have limits to what they can do to help you if you alienate your stakeholders.

People hate bullshit. People can sense bullshit. Bullshit enrages people. If you are running corporate communications for a brand, particularly a big one, tamp down on clichés, insider jargon and obvious lies

2. Take ownership

What both Bezos and Amazon woefully failed to demonstrate is an acknowledgment that there is actually a problem somewhere and they are on top of the situation. After reading an article like this, the response of the public is “Why isn’t anyone doing something about this?”

If you do not want this question to morph into an online petition on Change.org and a #BoycottYourBrand Twitter hashtag campaign, then there needs to be at least a partial acceptance of the problem, incorporating an apology, followed swiftly by a plan to tackle the problem, displaying an image of being in charge.

What Jeff Bezos did was say “As far as I know, the situation described here does not exist. I am the founder and CEO of this company, and so if I say it does not exist, you better believe me. And if there are any isolated incidents of this happening, then report it to me, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.

For I am Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon. Did I mention I am Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of…” In effect, he chose to stick his head in the sand and retreat into the obvious cult of personality surrounding him at Amazon. It is not only customers and the general public observing such lack of ownership. Shareholders are as well.

3. Use a spokesperson who visually disproves the accusation

A recurring accusation across many ex-employee interviews was that Amazon is a very Caucasian Male-oriented environment. The charge is that if you are not white and male, getting into or retaining a job at Amazon is very difficult, and getting promoted to senior levels is almost impossible. Indeed the most senior management level at the company is entirely white and has just one woman.

The way to address this accusation was not to endorse a social media post from the embodiment of that class of privileged white male ex-college fraternity boys. A woman could possibly have been designated as the official spokesperson for this crisis.

This would immediately influence the manner in which the interaction with the media would take place as a man will always attract less sympathy than a woman. Note that the only woman authorised to speak by Amazon, Susan Harker, thoroughly failed to transmit this vibe because of the next point.

Read also: How not to manage a public relations crisis

4. Be firm yet conciliatory

One of the first things a communications professional learns is that “Being Firm” and “Taking Charge Of The Discourse” are the Holy Grail of corporate communication. This is true – to an extent. What a lot of communications experts often miss though, is that there are several ways of projecting that dominance.

It is not always effective to look the situation directly in the eye with lips pursed and read out an official statement written in the terse, carefully worded language all press statements are written in.

In response to accusations of sacking and mistreating Amazon employees who developed cancer, Susan Harker responded with an anecdote of her own. Describing the leadership team’s strong support over the last two years as her husband battled a rare cancer she said, “It took my breath away.”

The problem with this as a communicator is that you have not actually said anything to your public. You have not said that the accuser is lying – something that can be definitely proven or disproven – and you have not said that the accuser’s situation is not a norm within your organisation.

You have simply told your public about how well you personally have it – and they are not interested in hearing how brilliant your life is. They want answers – how did such things happen and become commonplace? Are you taking responsibility for these practises and instituting reforms?

What will be done to compensate those who were unjustly treated? What guarantees can you give going forward that these practises will not repeat themselves? These are the questions that your press statement needs to answer. What you should NOT under any circumstances do in a situation like this is to minimise the experiences of 100+ people as “outliers” as Nick Ciubotariu did. That can only end badly.

5. Be sincere

People hate bullshit. People can sense bullshit. Bullshit enrages people. If you are running corporate communications for a brand, particularly a big one, tamp down on clichés, insider jargon and obvious lies.

A brand as massive as Amazon referring to its staff as “Amazonians” in external communication is a huge sign of a company which has possibly grown too large, and consequently takes itself far too seriously and has a defective organisational culture.

When reading your response to allegations of large-scale staff mistreatment, people do not want to hear fake words of endearment describing them. You must accept that the horse has already bolted if the New York Times has a detailed and referenced 5,000 word report on your internal organisational problem, and from that moment on, you must accept that what you are doing is Damage Control. You cannot pretend a problem away.

You must admit some degree of fault and then make public gestures to show that you are changing things in an effort to solve the problem.You do not disprove a media report by saying “It’s a lie.”

That is the kind of losing Public Relations practised by the Nigerian Military back in 2014 when AFP would release an eyewitness report alleging “2,000 Dead In Baga,” and the Nigerian military (three days later) would respond “It’s a lie it was actually 200” with no attempt at providing proof.

Even if AFP were not telling the truth, who were people going to believe in that situation? Once people sense that you are not being sincere with your message, their opinion will automatically turn against you. You cannot say, as the founder and CEO of a global business, that you “do not know” what is being described in the allegation about your business.

It is your job to know so pleading ignorance at best portrays you as weak and incompetent and at worst as dishonest and scheming. In the case of Jeff Bezos, the whole world knows that you cannot build the world’s most valuable retailer worth roughly $90 billion by being weak and incompetent. So what message did he deliver to his publics?That’s for you to decide.