How to Deal With Bad Press: Lessons Learned from Amazon

By Deborah Sweeney | allBusiness

The New York Times is no stranger to unveiling unethical practices of corporations and governments. It famously published the Pentagon Papers, and earlier this year did a well-received series on nail salons exploiting workers.

So when the paper came out with an exposé on the cutthroat culture of Amazon, many viewed it as another great piece of investigative journalism. Others saw it as an attack on business itself, and claimed the New York Times has always been biased against Corporate America. As with many arguments, the truth is likely more nuanced.

But at the heart of the issue is a controversy that threatens to stain Amazon’s reputation, putting the perception of its working environment on par with companies like Walmart.

And these sorts of issues aren’t ones that can only hurt big companies–any business could be the subject of a scathing exposé, or even just an angry post on Facebook. How Amazon chose to deal with this problem, then, is a great case study for handling a false portrayal of your company.

The New York Times’ Truth

In true New York Times fashion, the exposé held nothing back. It called Amazon a “bruising workplace,” one that would fire people who hadn’t completed their work because of serious illnesses.

With countless personal accounts, the publication made some pretty viable points regarding the brutal nature of working at Amazon. The legality of these actions was questionable, and were rightly brought to the public’s attention.

Is There Validity?

But even if these stories are accurate, they are only representative of a small portion of the company’s employees. One of the authors, Margaret Sullivan, even admitted that there needed to be more evidence to make an overarching conclusion about the entirety of the company.

Many current employees have taken to LinkedIn Pulse to express their distain of the article, saying it was horrible journalism in which The New York Times picks and chooses what it wanted to include for its own agenda.

In general, it’s hard to tell if more people spoke for the company than against its practices. Regardless, there will always be former employees who will speak poorly of a company. The CEO has three main options; they can either try to work out the situation with the former employee in a private matter, evaluate company policies and change accordingly, or they can do what Jeff Bezos did.

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The Response

When an article or story comes out that’s critical of your company, you have to respond somehow. For Jeff Bezos, he spoke through his employees.

According to Fast Company, he sent the article to his staff, encouraging them to read it. He also wrote in the body of the email that such cases would never be tolerated at the company, and if any were currently occurring, to report them to HR immediately. Bezos even attached his personal email, allowing employees to bypass management and lending credit to his assertion that these cases would not be tolerated at Amazon.

This was an incredibly smart move by Bezos, and something every CEO should note. A blanket statement can seem disingenuous–just a quick bit of copy whipped out to anyone looking for a comment on the story. But Bezos was able to turn the size of the company, which arguably had become a liability as pockets of unethical behavior appeared, and leverage it to try and show the majority opinion was positive.

Lessons Learned

The New York Times’s article is a great case study for us all. As an executive or business owner, you need to be ready to defend your company, but you must not be blind to the problem.

Jeff Bezos handled the situation in a unique, yet effective fashion. By sending that email, he was able to open a discussion about the workplace ethic while standing behind his position that the stories published would never be tolerated. This response helped to shift a decent amount of public opinion.

I do believe that there were some serious problems fomenting at Amazon, but these issues typically start small, and then slowly grow to engulf a department. You bring in one bad manager, and suddenly you’re hearing stories about staff having to stay at the office until 9 at night or risk being fired. Bezos readily met the criticism, and publicly solved it.

Circling the wagons and taking care of issues in-house just doesn’t work when stories and rumors start floating around. You have to take every hint of unethical behavior seriously, and show you’re fixing it.

Most businesses are never going to find complaints against them in The New York Times, but an irate ex-employee could certainly write and publish something on a blog or through a social network. And, depending on your size and target audience, that can be really damaging.

If and when it happens then take a page from Bezos’ book and meet the allegations head-on. Prove you’re willing to hear the complaint and are ready to solve it. Even if the complaint is completely unfounded, you’ll have shown a true, serious commitment to ethical behavior.

About Deborah Sweeney

Deborah Sweeney is the CEO of MyCorporation.com. MyCorporation is a leader in online legal filing services for entrepreneurs and businesses, providing start-up bundles that include corporation and LLC formation, registered agent, DBA, and trademark & copyright filing services. MyCorporation does all the work, making the business formation and maintenance quick and painless, so business owners can focus on what they do best. Follow her on Google+ and on Twitter @deborahsweeney and @mycorporation.

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