Amazon’s no good, very bad PR week

Discussion
Mar 26, 2021
George Anderson

Machine learning cameras in trucks, workers peeing in bottles, union-voting warehouse workers and a visit from Bernie Sanders — this has not been one of Amazon.com’s better weeks. The retail and technology giant has found itself in the headlines — not an unusual occurrence, but for a company that is a serial good news press release machine, all the unflattering coverage and negative social media pushback has got to be unsettling to management.

Vice reported that drivers making deliveries are required to sign a “biometric consent” form that gives Amazon permission to use cameras installed in the trucks to monitor their performance.

The primary purpose of the technology, according to Amazon, is to track if drivers are engaged in unsafe practices. A driver who is seen to be continually yawning, for example, could indicate fatigue and a greater risk for accidents. Many drivers see this as an intrusion, but they either sign or look for other work.

Amazon, in a rare unforced public relations error, went further down the rabbit hole over its responses to subpar working conditions.

Employees at a warehouse in Alabama are currently voting on union representation. Amazon has dismissed concerns raised by disgruntled workers and outside critics by touting its $15 an hour minimum wage and benefit programs it offers employees relative to healthcare and educational advancement.

The news this week that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I -VT) planned to visit the warehouse was not well received by Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon’s worldwide consumer business. He issued  a tweet, “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace.”

The shade thrown by Mr. Clark at the senator was not the end of it. Rep. Mark Pocan (D – WI) tweeted a response. “Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles.”

Amazon could have, but didn’t, leave the congressman’s post alone. Instead, it tweeted. “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.”

The company, forgetting the rule that very few tweets go unpunished, was greeted with reports by The Intercept and The Verge that provided evidence of workers urinating and (ugh) defecating on the job to avoid being disciplined for failing to meet Amazon’s productivity standards.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is Amazon in danger of losing the public perception battle about working conditions for its warehouse employees and delivery drivers? Will there be an eventual tipping point where bad press starts to catch up with Amazon’s business?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Amazon is treading on dangerous ground with these confusing responses to a negative situation."
"No. Amazon continues to attract talent, and the poor working conditions PR is the exception, not the rule."
"The response to Rep. Pocan’s tweet was the real mistake – escalating the issue. PR people should know better."

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24 Comments on "Amazon’s no good, very bad PR week"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Amazon’s employee issues are utterly perplexing. Why is it that a company as successful as they are even needs to go near employee issues like these? Why can’t they be setting a high standard for great employee relations, like Costco, where employees are happy and enthusiastic? As much as Amazon does things right, it consistently gets employee matters wrong. It’s perplexing.

Christine Russo
BrainTrust

Losing? I believe the results are already in. I’m not aware of a good public perception of working at Amazon’s warehouses, or in fulfillment and delivery.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

Amazon could and should be doing so much more and be the company that everyone else wants to emulate. Instead it is confirming a perception of being the big bad evil empire.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

I would suggest that Amazon lost the public perception battle long ago. What I hope we might see now, however, is that the continued news of poor conditions would influence consumer behaviors and drive them to other sellers until conditions improve. I am afraid that may be wishful thinking, though. Convenience, speed and free streaming videos are proving to be strong incentives for people to look the other way.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Actually, the pandemic response caused me to stop looking the other way. I really do try to find another source before I buy from them now.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
It’s often said perception is nine-tenths of everything in brand image and public relations. Amazon is treading on dangerous ground with these confusing responses to a negative situation. For a company in such a strong leadership position, they have an opportunity to completely own the “great place to work” narrative across their organization. Instead, they seem to be creating environments that accentuate poor worker conditions in fulfillment, warehouse, and delivery. Amazon should follow the script for proper crisis management and treat these reports as a full-fledged crisis. That’s how consumers will see it. Unfortunately, when you’re at the top, you become a target and magnet for negative publicity. When that happens, you have to be prepared to turn the image around, not by contradicting, refuting, and downplaying, but by a combination of admitting wrongs and demonstrating positive change and environments. Mysteriously, that doesn’t seem to be the playbook right now and, as a result, Amazon finds itself on the defensive when they should be controlling the narrative. How can it be that Amazon isn’t able… Read more »
Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

What’s interesting about this is that by every measurement, every poll, every one-on-one discussion with consumers, Amazon is by far the most loved brand in the U.S. So the question is, at what price comes this glory? There’s got to be a happier medium. I also think that speed of growth has a lot to do with this end of the battle. Seems like it’s time to slow down a second and take a look at your wake, Smiley.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

The reality is that even if Amazon loses the public perception battle, customers will still come. They will talk about how terrible Amazon is then they will click Amazon for their product search or shop at Whole Foods or watch movies on Prime.

When one is a leader, they are a target. How long ago did we rail against Walmart or McDonald’s? Could and should Amazon do better? Absolutely. Amazon employs almost 600,000 people. One wonders if all 600,000 are as unhappy as the press would lead us to believe.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

This will not impact public perception to the point of truly affecting sales. Amazon shoppers are so hooked that few will take a stand and shop elsewhere. It reminds me of people that are polled about wanting better privacy on Facebook and then post very personal details there. Standing up for a cause takes sacrifice.

The downfall may be in pushing the union vote towards unionization for employees on the fence and triggering union votes elsewhere, as well as a harder time resisting new state working conditions mandates.

Amazon will absorb all of the above and move on.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

They are a huge employer, stories will be out there. I notice these “stories” didn’t originate through major news bureaus but sites desperate for clicks which they got. I’m sure plenty of delivery drivers do whatever is necessary to meet deadlines. Convenience stores to apparel and coffeehouses use cameras all the time. We live in a “pile on” culture. Just going to leave this here, I see this as a PR job being created against the company.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I wondered that about cameras also. Are we just being ridiculous? Almost every retailer has cameras. The bigger the retailer, the more ubiquitous the cameras. We would be hard pressed to find a receiving platform without cameras. So why is it a problem that Amazon has cameras in their trucks?

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

Amazon has become the most significant corporate target in the consumer space. With that comes the slings and arrows of such outsized fortune, even if many are self-inflicted. Amazon’s complete reliance on technology and data to drive all business decisions leaves little room for the human side of culture. It appears that if Amazon cannot turn a situation into an algorithm or an efficient optimization logic, then it is not of value to the company. Perhaps that is the ultimate end of the “perfect” corporate machine, but since people continue to be part of the equation, the company needs to find its human side; sooner rather than later.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

The ultimate measure is the court of public opinion. And in that arena, Amazon doesn’t seem to be doing badly. As for Bernie: he has every right to speak his mind, but other than griping about private business, what has Bernie done to advance this country? Not a great deal in my opinion! He only knows how to redistribute the wealth that others have created. Many politicians are the same!

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

In Amazon’s culture, employee and customer are not equivalent. I don’t see this changing anytime soon. However poor work conditions will eventually lead to public pushback and the impact to sales and the company will be indirect, but it will erode confidence in the company. For the perfect marketing and PR machine, the response to Rep. Pocan’s tweet was the real mistake – escalating the issue. PR people should know better. The fact that they have to be defensive is enough to stir up uncertainty and doubt about working conditions, despite these being limited incidences across millions of employees. Better empathy and a bit of deference and humility can go a long way.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

It’s surprising that Amazon’s accomplished PR machine would make such blunders this week! Consumers are not likely to change their buying habits but eventually people will choose to not work at Amazon especially given the positive worker-friendly changes other companies like CostCo and Walmart are making.

Trevor Sumner
BrainTrust

Consumers love Amazon, and rightfully so. They deliver on price, selection and convenience. Consumers will be fine, but Amazon may strike the ire of politicians caught in a system designed for inaction. They have to be firm about their benefits without attacking figures that are beloved by those very same shoppers.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

No. Amazon continues to attract talent, and the poor working conditions PR is the exception, not the rule. Despite what was said by the Senators, paying employees $15 an hour (instead of the minimum wage of $7.25) WILL make a difference and any employee will tell you this. Add benefits on top of this and you have a progressive workplace that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Oh yeah, every bank has cameras by every teller, entrance and exit. The same applies to jewelry stores, large retailers, etc. Every mall parking lot, entrance and exit has cameras throughout the building. Just because this article says that there is a bad PR situation for Amazon, doesn’t make it so. I would argue that very few companies have Amazon’s total workplace, employee, and corporate leadership, including progressive pay, benefits and a growing corporate future.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I sold my small amount of Amazon stock over their PTO policies early in the pandemic. “Share your PTO.” I still buy from them, but try find other sources first.

“Share your PTO” was horrifying.

Joe Skorupa
BrainTrust

Amazon makes north of $400 million in online sales every day. If shoppers vote with their wallets, then Amazon is winning the online war and will keep winning with great prices, fast fulfillment, and ease/convenience. Could they simultaneously lose the PR war over working conditions? It’s possible, but Walmart was on the verge of losing a similar PR war 15 years ago and turned it around with strong reduction programs for energy and emissions for stores, warehouses transportation/supply chain, charitable giving for local communities, and more. If the situation continues to decline for Amazon it will likely follow this playbook.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

If Bernie Sanders is Amazon’s biggest threat, they’ve little to worry about.

But back to the question, students of history know someone — or someTHING — often catches up with those perceived as behaving badly. Standard Oil got broken up (sort of) and GM met its match in competition from Japan. Amazon may have a problem in that there’s the potential for an alliance between conservatives, who are likely to side with traditional businesses (being hurt by Amazon) and liberals (who are often hostile to business in general). But little is likely to happen until consumers feel they are suffering harm … which won’t happen as long as they are beholden of that four letter word … “free.”

James Tenser
BrainTrust

Amazon’s PR blunders are certainly regrettable. (Mr. Clark’s tweets were just plain dumb.) With its immense employee base, the odds are virtually certain that a few instances of unhappiness would surface. The company must know it is an obvious target for advocates of antitrust and unionization who may seek out uncomfortable anecdotes.

Goes with the territory, I guess, but companies that do right tend to have much less need for crisis PR.
I agree with Mark’s observation that a company with these resources should be setting the standard for working conditions. A living wage is essential, but not sufficient. Distractions like gamification (discussed in this forum 10 days ago) are a clue that Amazon doesn’t fully understand what it takes to be a first-class employer.

Brian Cluster
BrainTrust

Honestly, I think many consumers are in the drift of consumption and they almost unconsciously go back to Amazon to discover, search and continue to shop as they have for the past few years. However, if you checked out the recent Verint study on customer experience and CSAT; Amazon is no longer the #1 retailer in the US in CX. Amazon is still the clear leader in digital experience, but way behind Costco in trust. Costco is now the #1 retailer based on that research. Consumers are now starting to consume purposefully, more are buying based on corporate behavior, sustainability, and data transparency and the gaps on these issues may start to catch up with Amazon.

rgaster5
Guest
17 days 14 hours ago

Amazon has internal contradictions that drive this. Amazon seeks employees who are committed to the cause, and it validates its own behavior by constant reference to its North Star: the great god of the customer.

So it finds it very hard to accept that workers are not in fact committed, and that they don’t see bad working conditions as a kind of badge of honor. From Amazon’s perspective, the problem is always with the worker, and with outsiders (like Bernie) who have an axe to grind.

It generates a peculiar and wide-reaching blind spot. By definition, everything Amazon does is for the customer and hence good. Outsiders just don’t get it. And insiders who raise a fuss are also by definition breaching the prime commandment.

So it’s not that Amazon regularly stumbles over PR by accident; it genuinely believes that there is nothing to see here. Cults usually have a hard time understanding what others find objectionable.

Liza Amlani
Guest

Amazon’s “big brother” tactics will not guarantee the best results from its driver community. Hiring better drivers, investing in their employees training and well being, and treating their employees with human dignity will be the only way that Amazon can overcome this bad press.

I think customers are smarter and more informed than ever — the bad press will catch up to this beast of a retailer soon enough!

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Amazon is treading on dangerous ground with these confusing responses to a negative situation."
"No. Amazon continues to attract talent, and the poor working conditions PR is the exception, not the rule."
"The response to Rep. Pocan’s tweet was the real mistake – escalating the issue. PR people should know better."

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