Public Relations Problems: If the Naysayers Are Right, Composing, 01/09/2015

I labelled this post Composing because, ultimately, it's about a creative act: building a public relations plan, which includes research, strategy, countless contingencies, and dealing with a crisis. 

Some folks might consider it a little presumptuous of me to write an opinion like this about one of the biggest companies in the world, but a professional should have professional opinions. That's ultimately what this post is, the opinion of a young professional in communications, watching a crisis unfold in one of the richest corporations in the world, who can’t help but think something's been missed.

Amazon was already known for overworking its
warehouse employees as well.
I’m talking about the mess that Amazon found itself in, after the New York Times exposé by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld of their everyday office culture. This article is just over two weeks old. It blew up all over the internet, one of the most popular and discussed investigative articles they've done in a long time. 

If you haven’t read it, it’s incredibly long, so I’ll give you the shortest possible version. What they discovered was that Amazon's corporate culture is apparently so competitive and intense in its constant, competitive striving for excellence, that they've created a stressful living hell of continual pressure, fear, and bizarrely productive creativity. They’ve normalized overwork to the threshold of collapse.

That was the message of the Times’ article. There was some pretty serious corporate response. All of these responses were basically inadequate because they never addressed the foundation of the damning article. Here's a representative sample of three that I came across online in the weeks after the Times piece dropped.

Jeff Bezos wrote a letter to employees setting out the goals of the company, and assuring everyone that such an arch-corporate techno-Dickensian nightmare would never be a company where he could work himself.

A high ranking manager, assuring us all that he wasn't writing at the request or orders of the company, wrote a piece on LinkedIn likewise defending the company. Nick Ciubotariu’s core message was that Kantor and Streitfeld were blinded by their confirmation bias, looking only for former employees who had bad experiences with the company.

Ciubotariu also called attention to the Amazon management principle that you should Have the Backbone to Disagree and Commit. This was a core concept of the Times piece, as they found many examples of employees who would articulate this principle by ruthlessly and aggressively attacking the ideas of others to probe them for the smallest problem.

Jeff Bezos is one of America's most intense CEOs.
He, however, was confident that this phenomenon rarely if ever happened because the principle itself makes clear that all disagreement and critical discussion should be respectful.

The other piece was an analysis of Amazon’s public relations failures in the aftermath of the article’s publication. Maura Fitzgerald is a public relations consultant who analyzed the mistakes Amazon made in handling Kantor and Streitfeld’s investigation in the first place. 

Basically, her advice consists in making sure the company's leader, Bezos himself, would be available to reporters to correct any errors or personally rebut any accusations that the reporters’ other interview subjects levelled at him or the company.

All of these are inadequate, because they don’t take account of one important group that Kantor and Streitfeld’s piece hinged upon: aggrieved ex-employees.

Just because an employee is aggrieved, feels she's been done wrong, doesn't mean that grievance has no basis. In that case, the company itself has a moral obligation, as a human organization, to accommodate or at least negotiate the grievances of former employees it has driven away. 

Public relations should facilitate this process and display it to the wider population, for the sake of transparency to its customer base. The testimony of the ex-employees is a problem, and managing a problem means making sure it goes away, never to return. The most certain way to achieve that is actually fixing the problem.

After all, Amazon’s customer base includes significant chunks of humanity.

It doesn't matter what Bezos says when a chorus of former employees speak up about the conditions on the ground in the lower-level divisions that drove them out. This goes for his own statement, and whatever hypothetical rebuttal he would have given in Fitzgerald’s imagination. 

Being a company chief means you get reports from all over the organization, and you see its large-scale development. You don't see what life is like for the average mid or lower-level worker. The view from the top usually can't see the bottom in detail.

In my communications training, we were taught that the default spokesperson for any major issue is the CEO or some equivalent company leader. Public relations people learn to trust your company's CEO. The general public does not trust CEOs.

Ciubortariu’s response smacked too much of his own confirmation bias, the refusal to believe that anything was really wrong. He discounts the credibility of the reporters and the aggrieved employees simply because of their conclusion. When met with a criticism, he attacks the critics, refuting point by point.

He doesn't even refute that well. Take the line about respectful disagreement. Just because a general rule for company governance includes the word respectful, this doesn't mean that everyone behaves that way, or even understands that their aggression is disrespectful.

I once knew a prof, for example, who considered himself very respectful in talking with students, so it was clearly their fault that they almost always left his office crying.

If a group of former employees emerge and reveal what appear to be widespread problems in a company, the best response is to take their accusations seriously, find out if they're true, and act to repair them. If we treat aggrieved ex-employees as dissenters to be discredited and silenced, we may ignore real problems, and let them fester further.

Too often we can forget that crisis communications isn’t just about making the problem go away. It should be the public voice of the repair process that makes sure the problem doesn’t re-emerge later in an even worse form.

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