Arthur W. Page Society

Amazon Culture, Redux

Amazon CCO Jay Carney

My friend, Dick Martin, writes in his excellent blog that Amazon CCO Jay Carney's delayed response to The New York Times story about Amazon's culture was counter-productive, serving only to bring new attention to an issue that "gave the story legs." He cites the old saw, "Never pick an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel."

As I said in a comment on Dick's blog, I respect his point of view, which I do – he is one of the most thoughtful commenters on issues related to corporate reputation – but my view is this: If you're right, you fight. (In a response to my comment, Dick agrees, but argues for the response to be done through a credible third party. That's great advice, when it's possible.)

Now, I don't really know if Amazon IS right. It seems clear that Carney's complaints about the Times's reporting have some merit. Those of us in corporate communications have seen it many times before: The reporter comes in with the story already written in her mind, pledging balance and genuine interest in the nuances of the issue, but determined, in reality, to cherry-pick quotes and evidence to support her theory. The balance remains tucked away tidily in her notebook.

On the other hand, Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet responded with a thorough and credible defense of his reporter and the story, which the Times stands by.

To me, the real question is this: What is Amazon's culture really like? Having read all of the various points of view, I honestly don't know. But I do know this: What's really important at the end of the day is what the reality is.

Arthur W. Page famously said, "Public relations is 90% doing and 10% talking about it." I hope that Amazon is focused on doing everything it can to build a culture that is admirable. Jeff Bezos denies that the Times story reflects the reality at Amazon. In a memo to employees, he insisted, "Even if it's rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero." I hope he meant it.

wrote on this topic once before, and wish to reiterate here the main point I made then: "Corporate character matters. How employees are treated matters. How work gets done in your enterprise matters."

If Amazon truly is doing its best to build a high-performance culture characterized by empathy and concern for employees' well-being, then correcting the record is absolutely the right thing to do, and I salute Carney for being willing to take on that difficult task, even if it brings new attention to a challenging issue.

As for that two-month gap between the Times story and Carney's response, I find that totally understandable. First, it required a lot of research to get the facts right. Second, as Carney wrote, he sent the facts to the Times in the hope that the paper would issue a correction. When it refused, only then did Carney publish on his own.

One of the fascinating aspects of this is Amazon's decision to reveal sensitive personnel information. Most companies are strictly risk-averse on this, fearing time-consuming and expensive lawsuits. Amazon clearly weighed the risk here and concluded that the reputational damage of not responding outweighed the additional legal risk from disgruntled employees.

P.S. Dick Martin's new book on public relations ethics, with co-author (and Page member) Don Wright, is due out next month. His other great titles include an excellent look at stakeholder engagement, called Otherwise.

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