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PR is dead. Long live Public Relations.

Crying at the desk

Cry at deskThere used to be a saying, "Never pick an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel."

One would think that old saw didn't apply in the digital age. Everyone is a publisher now, right?

Wrong.  Case in point:

About two months ago, the New York Times published a highly negative story about Amazon's work culture. Among other things, it reported it was common for Amazon employees to be so stressed out they  cried at their desks.

That prompted Jeff Bezos, the company's CEO, to tell his employees he didn't recognize the company the paper described and hoped they didn't either. And his public relations team, led by Jay Carney fresh from a stint as White House spokesman, did its best to handle the second-day stories that inevitably appeared.

Not surprisingly, a brouhaha of epic proportions ensued, with claims and counterclaims flying back and forth between Amazon supporters and critics, including its own employees.  

The story became one of the paper's most-read pieces of the year, racking up more than five million views. But the New York Times reporting for that story was criticized, praised, and mocked.  

The paper's  public editor even put her own oar into the churning waters in a column gently criticizing the paper for basing its story on largely anecdotal evidence. That column ignited an unusual public disagreement with the paper's executive editor who rejected "the notion that you can report a story like this in any way other than with anecdotes."

And so the story lay until yesterday when Mr. Carney published a 1,300 word essay on the website Medium challenging the paper's reporting. Most damning, Carney claimed the paper's most vivid anecdote about employees crying at their desks came from an employee who "had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records." According to Carney when the employee was confronted with the evidence, "he admitted it and resigned immediately."

Within hours, the Times' executive editor Dean Baquet published his own 1,300-word rebuttal in Medium, reiterating his support for the article and saying that the employee who supposedly resigned because of misdeeds denies it ever happened. 

I hesitate to say Carney had the last word because this could go on forever. But he published a brief response to the Times' response. "The bottom line is the New York Times chose not to fact-check or vet its most important on-the-record sources," he wrote in Medium. "When an anecdote or quote is too good to check, it’s usually too good to be true."

So who won?

Not Amazon. All it succeeded in doing is to call more attention to the Times' original story. I say this from experience. I once wrote a letter to the editor of BusinessWeek challenging a negative story about AT&T.  My letter was even longer than the original article. It made the company's supporters feel better, but I doubt it changed any minds. Even though the facts were on our side.

In an argument between corporations and the media, it's the rare company that can come out on top. 

In his rebuttal, the Times' executive editor acknowledged that he and Carney had been exchanging email about the story. Since it took only three hours for the Times to issue that rebuttal, it's likely Carney had already laid out his case in that email exchange, including that the employee who had made the most graphic accusations had previously been dismissed for cause and had an axe to grind.  

That the Times' rebuttal accepted the employee's word with little or no fact-checking seems to buttress Carney's principal complaint. But coming from Amazon, it rings hollow.

A smarter move for Amazon would have been to bring the complaint to a respected third party, like the Poynter Institute or the Columbia Journalism School.  

Instead, Amazon gave the story legs. The Amazon executive suite may feel better, but it's hardly cause for high-fives. 






I respect your POV, as always, Dick, but I think there's a higher standard here than whether Amazon gave the original story legs. My view is, if you're right, you fight. (I don't know if they are right, but Carney, a very experienced TIME reporter, makes a good case.) For reasonable people (and I hope I'm one of those, as I know you are), credibly challenging the original story has to introduce more doubt about the fairness of the NYT report. I suspect Amazon's culture does have some issues, but I also suspect -- based on Carney's cogent argument and my own experience with stories like this -- that the NYT pushed it too far on flamboyant, but flimsy, evidence. The most surprising thing about this is Amazon's willingness to violate employee privacy. In my experience, companies don't spill the beans on employee issues even when it's in their interest to do so. Fascinating episode, isn't it?

"When you're right, you fight." I agree, Roger. The question is how. My point is that it's better done through an objective, disinterested, credible third party. I also agree that it's unusual to go public with employee issues, but in this case, the employee arguably brought it on himself. And I've always believed there were internal and external benefits to going public when employees are caught doing something wrong. It's usually the lawyers who argue that it opens a company to disparagement suits. Thanks for reading and commenting. I think you've furthered the discussion. Dick

You might be interested to know that, while a lot of people misattribute the quote about "ink by the barrel" to Mark Twain, ironically it was actually first uttered by the late Bill Greener, former Deputy Press Secretary to President Ford and longtime PR exec. He was quoted in the Wall Street Journal on September 28, 1978. According to the Yale Book of Quotations, the exact wording is, "Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel." I guess Carney didn't study the history of his predecessors.

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