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How not to manage a public relations crisis

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On Saturday August 15, 2015, Nick Ciubotariu, Head of Infrastructure Development, Amazon.com Search Experience (SX) woke up and like the rest of us, the first thing he did was grab his phone and examine his social network feeds. He immediately noticed that the New York Times had published an article on Amazon, which was to say the least, negative.

Based on detailed interviews with over 100 ex-Amazon employees as well as anonymous whistleblowers within Amazon, the article described Amazon as the 19th century salt mine of Seattle tech companies.

It described an internal organisational culture of constant and unending conflict, in-fighting, backstabbing and fear, with work weeks of up to 85 hours without any regard for personal or professional boundaries.

Ex-employees described a situation where colleagues are able to negatively influence and even destroy each other’s company ratings using the Anytime Feedback Tool within the company’s phone directory that enables employees to anonymously snitch on each other to managers.

The article quoted several horror stories of ex-employees including a man who was pushed out after taking a few days off to care for his sick father and a woman who was told to return to work a day after having a miscarriage.

Ex-employees described Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos as a megalomaniac control freak who was notorious for sending emails after midnight and expecting immediate replies and calling individual employees at 3am angrily demanding explanations about work issues.

In just a few hours the article generated over 6,600 comments, over 78% of which were overwhelmingly negative. It also became a trending topic on Twitter worldwide with many more reactions on Twitter, Reddit and Facebook.

Many found it disturbing and upsetting that such an organisational culture can be allowed to exist in the modern day corporate world. Others angrily announced that they were cancelling their Amazon Prime and Kindle subscriptions and that they would never shop on Amazon again.

Major news organisations including CNN, Yahoo, Slate, Vox, USA Today, US News, MSNBC, Tech Crunch, NBC and The Verge then jumped on it. The Guardian columnist Stuart Heritage penned an article about his decision to permanently boycott Amazon.

This was probably the biggest corporate social media crisis of 2015. Coming at a time when the company was already under intense scrutiny for its treatment of warehouse workers, it’s perceived bullying of authors and it’s emphasis on customers at the expense of sellers, this was a Public Relations nightmare of epic proportions for Amazon, a company which cares obsessively about its image to customers.

The communication deployed to manage this crisis would have to be soft and conciliatory and yet decisive and firm at the same time.

So what did Amazon do?

Pretty Much Everything You Shouldn’t First of all, Nick Ciubotariu mentioned at the outset, immediately took to his LinkedIn page and penned a lengthy riposte to the original NY Times article.

His response to the allegations of being made to answer emails and return phone calls at 3am?

“During my 18 months at Amazon, I’ve never worked a single weekend when I didn’t want to. No one tells me to work nights. No one makes me answer emails at night. No one texts me to ask me why emails aren’t answered.”[Translation – “I work weekends. I work nights. I answer emails at night. But all of my own volition of course.”]

He went on: “If Amazon used to be this way from my 18 month experience working in two of its biggest product groups, that Amazon no longer exists.”[Translation – “I don’t know what these people are talking about. They are possibly lying.”] It got even worse.

In response to the quote by ex-Amazon employee Ben Olson stating that he saw everyone he worked with crying at their desk at some point, he wrote:“I don’t know Ben Olson, and I don’t know when he left the company. If his story is true, his manager, whoever they were, should be ashamed. I’ve been here 18 months, and I’ve never seen anyone cry. And if that was truly the environment in books marketing, Ben should have said something immediately.”[Translation – “Ben Olson is lying and if such a thing ever happened, it is his fault. It was Ben Olson’s fault. Not Amazon.”]

In response to where it was stated that Amazon has one of the highest staff turnover rates in the Fortune 500 with an average staff term of just one year, he responded,“It’s such a mystery that Glassdoor, CareerCup, Quora.. – well, “the Internets” as a whole know all about Amazon, just like this article pretends to.

I meet with people every day who ask what life at Amazon is like, and I tell them. I do this formally at least twice a week, for any interview I Bar Raise, because candidates ask. I’m doing it right now, for everyone that’s gotten this far into the article and still cares. ”

[Translation – “The professionals who run those data gathering services at respected outlets like IBI Times and Business Insider are full of nonsense. You should not listen to them despite their access to verifiable, independent data.

You should only listen to me because I said so. Me, Nick Ciubotariu the Amazon Engineer. Because I am Amazon and Amazon is me. Me. Me. Me. Did I mention Me?”]

He continued: “There is no “culling of the staff” annually. That’s just not true. No one would be here if that actually took place and it was a thing.”[Translation – “The data is lying. I am the one telling the truth. Because I said so, and I’ll slap you if you disagree.”]

“Other erroneous or unsubstantiated parts of the article. “Within Amazon, ideal employees are often described as “athletes” with endurance, speed”. That’s just not true, and I’ve never heard anyone say that.

I also think teaching Amazon’s Leadership Principles to one’s children is kind of funny (my opinion only, if there are indeed Amazonians that do this). I’m too busy teaching my child Judo, reading and chess. She’s also busy teaching me about Disney Jr.”[Translation – “I am Amazon and Amazon is me. If I’ve not heard of something within Amazon, it didn’t happen.

By the way, do you know that in addition to being Nick Ciubotariu, Head of Infrastructure Development, Amazon.com Search Experience (SX), I am also a super-awesome dad? How awesome can I get? Don’t you just wish you were me, Nick Ciubotariu, Head of Infrastructure Development, Amazon.com Search Experience (SX)?

You media people are all just jealous of me aren’t you?”] He then proceeded to attack the ex-employees interviewed by the New York Times: “I don’t want to be dismissive of the examples provided, but singling out several outliers to vilify an entire company does not represent truth in journalism.”[Translation – “I will absolutely dismiss the more than 100 ex-employees interviewed by the New York Times.

As far as I am concerned, they are all “outliers”. I, Nick Ciubotariu, stand on my soapbox to preach to the New York Times about journalism because I know more about journalism than they do. I am Nick Ciubotariu, Head of Infrastructure Development, Amazon.com Search Experience (SX).”]

On the charge of Amazon’s lack of human resource diversity, he then dropped this pearl:“I have seen Amazon do more to encourage diversity than any other company I’ve worked for.

My Bar Raiser mentor is one of the most capable leaders I have ever met – she is a stellar professional and Amazon is lucky to have her. Quite frequently, I interface with Directors and CVPs that are women, who have earned my trust and respect.”[Translation – “I have a Black friend so I’m totally not racist. My mentor is a woman, so therefore Amazon is not sexist. It’s a room full of men, but one token woman proves that we are totally encouraging diversity.

I mean I, Nick Ciubotariu, Head of Infrastructure Development, Amazon.com Search Experience (SX) (I’m so awesome am I not?!), yes I even interact with some of these exotic creatures known as women who have earned my trust and respect. Because ordinarily I have no reason to trust or respect a woman. They have to earn it.

After passing through one of the world’s most difficult recruitment processes, a woman still has to prove herself to me, Nick Ciubotariu, before I, Nick Ciobotariu Head of Infrastructure Development, Amazon.com Search Experience (SX) can trust and respect her. Am I not the best thing since sliced bread?”]

And then the coup de grace: “Final Update: This article has gotten a lot of attention, and I won’t have time to respond to everyone. I want to state – unequivocally so – that NO ONE asked me to write this article, or had any idea that I would write it, or edited/proof-read it prior to it hitting LinkedIn, aside from my wife, who was upset that I was spending a perfectly good Saturday in front of my computer.

Someone internal actually emailed me this morning, and asked if I had contacted PR ahead of time, and if I had seen the Social Media guidelines (the answers were no, and yes).

“[Translation: “My company’s PR department has no crisis communication strategy and I am a loose cannon. I had a rush of blood to the head after waking up and I decided to write a lengthy article about me and how wonderful my life is in response to a critical article about the corporate culture of my employer.

Read also: 2023 presidential campaigns: The media must beware of sophists and sophistries

Let me also find a way to slip my awesome wife into this even though none of this has anything to do with her.”]

The CEO’s Memo Worsens Things“Dear Amazonians, If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html

“[Translation: Do NOT read this New York Times article because it is very long and you are at work on company time.]”

I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/amazonians-response-inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-nick-ciubotariu”

[Translation: Instead read this LinkedIn post by my office pet about why this place is the bestest place EVER.]” Here’s why I’m writing you.

The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems.

The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at [email protected]. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

“[Translation: Even though as the founder and CEO of this company, I am totally aware of the management practises here that have become so rampant that the New York Times is reporting on it, I am choosing to claim ignorance and distance myself from it.

As far as Amazon is concerned, you have never come across any of these things either. If you are stupid enough to want better treatment here, email me directly and clear your desk while you’re at it because you no longer have a job here.]”

The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.

Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.

The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

“[Translation: I will not deny that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, all I will tell you is that I have no comment and neither should you as long as you still want a job here.

If you feel that you cannot survive here, get out of here. You have Amazon on your CV and so you can now work wherever you want. No one is forcing you to be here.]”I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

“[Translation: If you perceive the environment here to be toxic, then you are crazy for staying here. We only want those who thrive in this sort of environment and we have no intention whatsoever of changing our methods.

Please leave immediately if this is not to your liking.]”But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.

“[Translation: Hopefully, you are one of those who thrives on our atmosphere here and you’re having fun backbiting your brilliant teammates, helping me make more money selling keyholders and phone chargers, and crying into your coffee every morning.] Thank you,Jeff”