Don’t Bite the Hand… A Defensive PR Mentality May Make You Forget This

Think small.

Think small before getting defensive with PR

The vast majority of companies engaged in PR understand a continuously positive proactive approach is what helps ensure the results we seek. And the primary means for success continues to be positive media coverage. For the largest of companies, at some point this changes. They switch to a highly defensive mode. Sure, they often still leverage proactive approaches for certain campaigns. But, even in crafting such campaigns there are often tones of defense.

Back in August, the New York Times published a story about being a “Bruising Workplace.” An Amazon SVP involved with or leading PR then went on a major defensive approach to the story. Now, this PR person has quite a resume – in addition to being an Amazon SVP for corporate affairs, his bio also states he’s a former white house press secretary. Oh, and he’s also a 20-year reporter for TIME. This is a person that is doing PR at one of the world’s biggest brands, did PR for the world’s most powerful person, and reported for arguably the most reputable news magazine the world has known. Yeah, quite a resume. But, somehow, even with such background the defensive mechanisms of large institutions can seep into the bones. It seems to prevent what, I feel at least, should be a more logical viewpoint – avoid being defensive whenever possible.

I’m guessing the best results Amazon hoped for was a retraction and apology. I can’t understand how one would think that might be a possibility – outside of the fact the defensive nature takes over too much. There’s likely very few appropriate measures Amazon could have taken to defend against what was written. It’s because there are larger forces at work. At the end of the day, Amazon is perceived by most people reading about them as a big business in an increasingly anti-corporate society. Don’t get me wrong, after all, Amazon is a most admired business. But, put another way, defending such a big corporation by attacking the media outlet that supposedly wrote negatively about it is still a no-win battle. This is because increasingly people like to dislike big business. People will look more for a reason to prove Amazon doesn’t belong on that list of admired companies more than they’ll look for reasons not to believe they’re a bad place to work.

There probably would have been less PR damage had Amazon not responded at all. However, I don’t believe Amazon should not have responded. But, such a defensive response from a big brand is usually not going to go over well. Such corporations need to figure out a way to balance when defensive approaches are necessary. In their corporate communications, they need to be able to think small and big at the same time. I’ve seen how easy it can be for corporate communications to get caught up in getting defensive – it is human nature too. If Amazon had avoided getting defensive and instead simply came out with a non-posturing statement, things may have come out better.

“Amazon employs some 150,000 people. Part of sustaining an environment where so many people want to work involves a management philosophy of appreciation for our workforce. This is at the core of our belief system, that happy employees make Amazon better. While Amazon strives to achieve 100 percent satisfaction in all that we do, with such a large workforce, we understand how a small portion might not be satisfied. The less than one percent of our workforce surveyed in the story is obviously not reflective of our entire workforce. Yet, it falls short of our 100 percent goal. So, we will continue our never-ending efforts to achieve and maintain 100 percent employee satisfaction just as we do with our customers.”

The Times posts this Amazon response, perhaps. The story fades away instead of becoming a virally shared item. And neither party really fills any ill will toward the other a month later.

A small portion of this company’s employees were caught posting reviews on Amazon for its own product – they make the popular Rock Band game. Apparently there were a handful of reviews allegedly tied to employees. It’s happened before and probably happens a lot more than we know.

For the most part, the company’s reps seem to have responded appropriately. But, the problem appears more one of internal communications. These employees either weren’t aware (unlikely) of the implications or simply ignored (likely) the notion of “full disclosure.” That apparently one of the people posting was part of the legal team, well, that doesn’t help Harmonix get away from looking bad either. Harmonix probably could have done better at proliferating a message internally for employees to not post reviews. I’m sure there are such policies in place at Harmonix for these things in social media. So, it would seem they’d have also covered employee reviews. Then again, I can imagine how a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” may seem more appealing.