Amazon rebuts NYT article two months late – why?

Discussion
Oct 21, 2015

An article in The New York Times back in August described the working environment at Amazon.com as driven if not downright treacherous. At the time, CEO Jeff Bezos responded in an internal e-mail that the descriptions in the article didn’t "describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day." After a few days of news cycle tumult, it appeared the story was pretty much out of sight, out of mind. You could have said it was until Amazon decided to bring it back up again this week. Why?

Jay Carney, Amazon’s senior vice president for global corporate affairs, wrote a rebuttal of the Times‘ article and posted it on Medium, an online publishing platform, on Monday. In his piece, Mr. Carney, the former White House Press Secretary for the Obama Administration, countered that the Times engaged in sloppy reporting by taking stories out of context and failing to ask Amazon to respond to specific allegations.

Of Jodi Kantor, one of the two reporters working on the story, Mr. Carney wrote that she "never asked us to check or comment on any of the dozen or so negative anecdotes from named sources that form the narrative backbone of the story."

Amazon conveyor

Source: Amazon

Mr. Carney goes on to point out specific shortcomings of the initial report and claims there is an institutional bias against Amazon as evidenced by the Times‘ own public editor calling out the paper’s coverage of the e-tail giant’s negotiations with the book publisher Hachette.

As would be expected, the Times had a comeback for Mr. Carney. Dean Baquet, executive editor at the paper, defended both the substance and tone of the original article in a reply on Medium.

"Our reporters spoke to more than a hundred current and former employees, at various levels and divisions, over many months. Many, including most of those you cited, talked about how they admired Amazon’s ambitions and urgency even as they described aspects of the workplace as troubling," wrote Mr. Baquet.

The rebuttal of the Times‘ coverage has made Amazon’s culture news again. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, which is owned by Amazon, found himself having to answer the culture question at this week’s WSJDLive global technology conference.

Mr. Hsieh replied that maintaining Zappos’ employee-friendly culture was part of the agreement in the deal to be acquired by Amazon. In some cases, Amazon has adopted Zappos’ methods including paying employees on the job for four or five weeks to quit if it doesn’t seem like the right fit for them.

While not passing judgment on Amazon, Mr. Hsieh said that companies with strong cultures tend to adapt and find success when others do not.

Did Amazon make the right decision in deciding to publish its rebuttal to an article written by The New York Times in August two months after the fact? How would you have handled the situation if you were running Amazon’s public relations and/or human resources?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"With thousands of ex-employees just a click away on LinkedIn you can’t "spin" your culture with press releases and hand-picked testimonials from senior executives."
"For some reason everyone ignores an interesting subplot. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon is also the owner of the Washington Post. I know the Times has the larger circulation, but I can’t help but think there’s behind-the-scenes jostling."
"It does seems slow. The fact that it took 2 months either means they’ve been gathering information OR they couldn’t decide what to do about the huge negative pub. In any case, it’s passe by now."

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14 Comments on "Amazon rebuts NYT article two months late – why?"


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Jason Goldberg
Guest
6 years 7 months ago

While the public discourse may have died down, I suspect that Amazon recruiters hear about the article every time they cold call a new prospect.

They likely felt they needed to re-address the perception, due to the impact on its recruiting. Amazon has always been a bit tone deaf on this topic: “our employees prefer Windows that open,” and I don’t think their recent rebuttal particularly helps their cause.

What companies need to remember is that the same digital disruption that made Amazon possible also gives job seekers perfect transparency into the corporate culture. With thousands of ex-employees just a click away on LinkedIn you can’t “spin” your culture with press releases and hand-picked testimonials from senior executives.

Dick Seesel
Guest
6 years 7 months ago

Jeff Bezos’s initial response was, essentially, that the Amazon described in the original article was not the company he knew. But the reporting painted a convincing picture of his company’s culture — fair or unfair in his view — that might have caused a period of introspection.

Amazon chose not to take that route, but instead to re-ignite the controversy with Carney’s comments. It’s not surprising that the New York Times moved quickly to defend its reporters and reporting, although Amazon may have been caught by surprise by the speed and forcefulness of the response.

Bottom line: Amazon may have been smarter to look in the mirror first and to announce some reforms, but that doesn’t appear to be the Bezos way. “Take no prisoners” is more like it.

David Livingston
Guest
6 years 7 months ago

I think the timing is just right. Currently Amazon is in desperate need for thousands of seasonal employees. Now is the time to get their message out. Two months ago would have been too early. With the economy booming near full employment, lower-wage employees have plenty of options. Amazon needs warm bodies immediately. Great timing on getting their story out.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
6 years 7 months ago

If the NYT article misstated the facts, the time to rebut them was right then and not two months later. By doing so Amazon again raised the specter of being a bad place to work just before announcing it was hiring 100,000 seasonal workers. Now it will be back in the press with a “you did/no we didn’t” battle that will have its own news cycle.

The real cure for these negative articles is not for Amazon to write rebuttals but to address the issues that purportedly happen within its organization.

Quentin Smelzer
Guest
6 years 7 months ago

I think it is a mistake to rebut the story this way at this time. It is completely possible that management lost touch with employees and let growth become their only idol. It is amazing that Jeff Bezos would think the Amazon “he knows” bears any resemblance to the Amazon his lowest paid employees know unless he had made that knowing his mission. And Mr. Carney’s quibbling about the journalistic process, when the story was well sourced and not factually refuted, is senseless.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
6 years 7 months ago

For some reason everyone ignores an interesting subplot. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon is also the owner of the Washington Post.

I know the Times has the larger circulation, but I can’t help but think there’s behind-the-scenes jostling that has more to do with Times vs. Post than Amazon vs. NYT. That’s where the “sloppy reportage” comments come in. Very tit for tat in subtle ways. There’s a lot we don’t know going on behind the scenes, I think.

Having said that, I do think the seasonal worker problem is real as well.

Ben Ball
Guest
6 years 7 months ago

My read on this is that after doing their own “fact-checking” (e.g., some of the main sources in the Times narrative had been dismissed for improper conduct with vendors, etc.) Carney convinced Bezos that the best defense is a good offense. Frankly, having taken on the Times, I think Carney knows what he is talking about. The New York Times has ceased to be a credible news source for most of mainstream America. Fox could learn a thing or two from them about how to be an “ideological mouthpiece.”

Is there some truth to the reporting of the Amazon environment? I’m sure there is. It’s all about whether you report the facts or use facts to support your opinions. One is news, the other is editorial. Or maybe they should use that clever phrase many of our trade journals have adopted. “Advertorial” I believe it is.

Tom Redd
Guest
6 years 7 months ago

Real easy. This was a great way to re-open a wound due to internal politics at Amazon and proof that Amazon is very complex. Are they a big shop that has trouble making up their minds? Or is it that they have a lousy PR crisis program that was implemented too late? Seasonal worker issues? Dumb move. Amazon is just restating that they are not a good people’s emotions shop. Jeff wants to invent that.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
6 years 7 months ago

Reading this today brought the issue back to mind. I must say I have not thought about it since the hoopla died down. My original thoughts were this was an article mostly made of facts, but with some smooth massaging by the Times to make it an issue rather than anything real or troubling. Frankly, an employee has the right to decide where they work. If not Amazon, then somewhere else. If Amazon, then be the best and most loyal employee you can be. Not a corporate back stabber as is the case here in my opinion. But the question is about the timing of the rebuttal. I agree with many of my friends who think it has more to do with getting the seasonal help they will need.

Larry Negrich
Guest
6 years 7 months ago

Strategically the timing of this is good. Had Amazon come out with a flurry of immediate responses it would have created a publicity firestorm that would only have brought more attention to the initial article and serve to put Amazon on the defensive. Addressing the issues in this measured and well-prepared manner allows Amazon to give the counter, discredit some the article content, and to have a rebuttal on record. Of course this did give new life to the article but Amazon needed to address and blunt the accusations. Now Amazon will need to display some self-control and not whip up a new news event with the back and forth.

Lee Peterson
Guest
6 years 7 months ago
It does seems slow. The fact that it took 2 months either means they’ve been gathering information OR they couldn’t decide what to do about the huge negative pub. In any case, it’s passe by now. IMO, they should’ve quickly been UN-apologetic and released a statement to the effect of “when you grow like we have and change the face of retail, it hurts—but we’re getting better.” To that point, I think working at any company that’s in rapid growth and innovation mode is going to be very difficult. And most people know that going in. I worked for a retailer that went from 250 stores to 4500 stores in 10 years, and what the NYTimes described as Amazon’s culture was prevalent with us too. People who started during that time knew about the culture coming in, but were willing to join the fray at whatever price. It’s just capitalism at its finest; you can’t create a company that goes from zero to over 100 billion dollars annually without leaving some carnage. And those that… Read more »
Gordon Arnold
Guest
6 years 7 months ago

One of the problems growing from this bad press might be Amazon’s ability to attract and hire new talent. This would be no small concern for an e-commerce corporate growth plan. Placing all the blame on the New York Times may be a little short sited or too narrow in scope.

My own awareness of the difficulties described in the article came many months before the article was published. The information came largely by means of word of mouth via the internet social media as well as person to person from former employees. In any event, whether true or false, Mr. Bezos and his executive staff would do well to create a growing membership of happy employees that are proud of who for and where they work with an outspoken willingness to share this information. But that’s just what I think.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
6 years 7 months ago

Amazon published its rebuttal when Mr. Bezos remarked that it wasn’t the Amazon he knew; there wasn’t really a need to say more since it was basically a fluff piece full of anecdotes and opinions. Rekindling the controversy at this points accomplishes little more than feeding the narrative of being a control freak.

Dan Frechtling
Guest
6 years 7 months ago

Geekwire queried 5 PR consultants on their impressions of the rebuttal. .The problem was most of the flacks were unwilling to criticize Amazon because of the golden goose syndrome—why criticize a potential revenue stream?

This is a case where the comments are more interesting than “sources say.” Read the comments in the NYT article and you’ll see scores of employee stories about the AMZN environment. Many were regretful. Whether you believe or doubt the NYT editorial, you can respect the court of public opinion.

Truth: Amazon should have let sleeping dogs lie and let the news cycle move on.

But while the so-called experts here and elsewhere debate, the best observation I saw came from the comments of the Geekwire article: “Don’t start a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Amazon is the world’s best retailer. But NYT is the world’s leader in news.”

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"With thousands of ex-employees just a click away on LinkedIn you can’t "spin" your culture with press releases and hand-picked testimonials from senior executives."
"For some reason everyone ignores an interesting subplot. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon is also the owner of the Washington Post. I know the Times has the larger circulation, but I can’t help but think there’s behind-the-scenes jostling."
"It does seems slow. The fact that it took 2 months either means they’ve been gathering information OR they couldn’t decide what to do about the huge negative pub. In any case, it’s passe by now."

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