The real winner of Amazon vs. The New York Times: Medium

Crisis communicators praised Amazon's choice of Medium to rebut The New York Times. They were less bullish about its timing and strategy.

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Crisis communications pros say they are surprised Amazon attempted to discredit a two-month-old New York Times exposé about the online retailer’s "bruising" work conditions – but not at all by its decision to do so on Medium.

In fact, they say Medium, created by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone in 2012, should be added to brands’ crisis-response toolkits, if it’s not there already, alongside other op-ed-type platforms. Similar self-publishing sites worth considering include Slant News and Storify.

David Krejci, EVP of social media and digital communications at Weber Shandwick, points out that "you can generate attention by virtue of it being a newer platform, but Medium also benefits from having an elegant user experience."

"There may be more flexibility, expediency, and freedom in how content is displayed on a third-party platform like Medium, versus company websites that might have to get certain approvals," he explains. "It also has that connection to Twitter, so you’ll potentially get more people seeing it than if it was only on your own blog."

Amazon took to Medium on Monday, when Jay Carney, the e-commerce giant’s VP of worldwide corporate communications, posted a piece challenging the credibility of former employees quoted in the Times article of August 15. The post called into question the newspaper’s journalistic ethics and practices.

"Had the reporters checked their facts, the story they published would have been a lot less sensational, a lot more balanced and, let’s be honest, a lot more boring," wrote Carney, a former journalist who spent nearly 20 years at Time. He was also press secretary for President Barack Obama before joining Amazon early this year.

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet quickly shot back with his own post on Medium,

addressing each of Carney’s specific points and reiterating that his reporters spoke to more than a hundred current and former Amazon employees. Baquet also sat down for an interview for an article published the next day in the Times about the back and forth.

Many media outlets pointed out that it took Amazon eight weeks to rebut the Times. Stephen Corsi, global SVP at Lewis Pulse, suspects that "it is part of a longer strategy to repair and rebuild any tarnishing the Amazon brand has faced as it relates to their recruiting practices."

"Clearly, recruiting is of primary importance for Amazon, and the ability to attract and retain the best talent remains a priority for the company," he adds. "So it needs to continue to modify the narrative to present Amazon as a company employees should be thrilled to work for."

He concurs that Amazon made a smart decision to choose Medium to do that. Despite its relative lack of reach, the platform is growing in popularity and posts on it can "gain traction across other channels such as on apps like [personal magazine service] Zite and even broader than if they promoted it on just Twitter."

Other attributes make Medium an ideal crisis response platform, as well, say experts.

"With Medium, Carney also had a platform to provide his own opinion, free from any bias that he may have received if he had published this piece somewhere else," says Corsi. "Medium’s format allowed him to write the piece from a less formal, personalized way, which allowed Amazon’s perspective and the facts of the matter to speak for themselves."

He adds, "It’s fitting for him to criticize the reporters in a medium that is not traditional or mainstream."

And like in real estate, location can be everything in a crisis communications situation, say other experts.

Bernstein Crisis Management president Jonathan Bernstein agrees op-ed sites "can be a great neutral ground for addressing issues in addition to your own blog, while avoiding platforms controlled by your critics or populated primarily by those opposed to your point of view."

"Every time you get a chance to repeat your messages without getting into a flaming war with critics at the same location, you increase the prospect of your message being seen by your stakeholders," he says. "And, assuming each platform provides the opportunity to link back to your own website or blog, it has SEO value."

Yet Bernstein adds that a company must be certain of the facts, because it is best practice for opponents to respond directly on a neutral platform.

"It gives whoever you’re criticizing an opportunity to state or restate his or her own key messages, which is what The New York Times did very effectively," points out Bernstein. "They really hammered the point that ‘we talked to hundreds of people,’ which kind of drowned out the messages initially communicated by Amazon."

"In the shoot-out between the two, I think The New York Times won," he says.

Melissa Arnoff, SVP at Levick, says it’s hard to understand the strategy of dredging up a story that had died down, but Amazon must have had data indicating the piece was hurting the company’s reputation, recruiting, or other business factors.

"The bigger danger is not just the timing of the response, but the approach," she says. "I would never advise a client to go down a list of claims and try to defend against a handful of them. It is simply too defensive and also makes one wonder about the claims they are not denying."

However, one thing was very different about Amazon’s counterpoint compared with other corporate Medium posts: responses to Carney’s missive were disabled.

Arnoff also questions that strategy, saying that interactivity is fundamental to social media. Medium usually doesn’t allow authors to disable comments with the click of a button; the function was deactivated at the request of Amazon, according to Re/code.

"Given the post is largely, as I read it, about openness and transparency and showing all the sides of a situation, to then shut down any commentary or opinion doesn't seem to send the right message," says Arnoff. She adds third-party validation on a post "can be helpful in a crisis, though of course you run the risk of support going the other way."

PRWeek reached out to Amazon for comment, but the company did not respond by press time.

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