How Amazon & Jay Carney Failed At PR — and How They Could Have Won.

Jay’s Rule #1: Respond to all media controversies at least 59 days later.

If you were writing a PR guide based upon Jay Carney’s recent actions, that would have to be one of the first, and few, lessons in the book.

From a cognitive point of view this is probably one of the biggest mistakes a communications team can make. Why? It brings the embarassing story out of the recesses of memory and back into conscious attention. This is the opposite of what a PR professional would want to do in a situation like this: make the story go away.

In the short article that follows we’re going to lay out a few of the most important laws of persuasion and show how Amazon & Carney violated them (to their own peril).

Rule 1: Associate, associate, associate.

If you’re in the business of shaping consumer perception around a company, you want to create a firm association between your company’s identity and positive emotions. This is the reason that companies like Coca Cola sponsor transcendent talents like Lebron James and create ads featuring cuddly polar bears and Santa Claus.

It’s also why they pay big bucks to use tunes like Starship’s We Built This City as the backdrops to their commercials.

The more you associate your brand with good, pleasurable things the better off your brand will be. The more your associate your brand with negative, degrading things the worse off your brand will be. This is common sense.

Unfortunately, lots of PR teams break this rule by spending way too much time responding to negative news. Each time a company responds to a negative event it is further strengthening the association bettwen the event and its brand. This is the “Don’t Think of an Elephant” phenomenon that George Lakoff wrote a whole book about. Even if I ask you to NOT think of a white elephant you will. By merely uttering the phrase I’m putting those concepts into your head.

This is also why it’s so strange that Carney chose to take the most negative quote from the original article and use it as his first line. Many social sites will only show one or two sentences from an article in its preview mode, which means that thousands of people around the web are seeing Amazon’s PR head talk about Amazon workers crying at their desks. Only a fraction of these people are likely going to read the article, which means that 95% of the article’s viewers will go away with the wrong impression (Amazon = evil):

Rule 2: Answer the question that makes you look good.

If you want a bad piece of news to go away you should change the subject. A proper response from Amazon during the initial crisis would have been for them to showcase all of the great things that they’ve brought to the world. They could have told us all about their push to have same-day shipping, or the success of Amazon Fresh in delivering cheap and high quality groceries, or their push to help small companies sell their experimental wares through their Launchpad program. The message should have been: “All revolutionary companies have some employees that work a little too hard. We’re just trying to build the world’s best store to bring you great things at great prices.”

The master of changing the subject & answering the question that makes him look good.

If the New York Times pushed further, Amazon could have just responded with: “Listen. All companies that are building great products and services are full of stressed out people. We’re just trying to make lives better with things like Amazon Prime.”

Done.

After saying something like that, Amazon should have moved on. Any further responses would have just been strengthening the association between Amazon and the negative press (horrible work conditions).

Rule 3: Rely on emotion instead of logic.

The reason that rule #1 works (association) is because of rule #3. We’re emotional creatures.

We tend to decide with our emotions and then use logic to come up with a reasonable, post-hoc story for why it was the right choice.

But instead of taking advantage of our emotional midbrains, Carney thought that coming up with a well-documented, rational rebuttal was the right move. Unfortunately, this isn’t based on how people actually form their perceptions.

Even if his response is valid, he’s still having people think about negative Amazon press (horrible working conditions at Amazon). The more people think about the bad thing you’re trying to disprove, the more thoroughly it will get imprinted in their minds, and the more damage you will have done.

In this situation Jay should have figured out how to make his audience feel emotionally compelled to side with Amazon. He could have reminded them of how much less they’re paying for books, supplements, clothes, you name it.

Or he could have realized that sometimes the best way to win an argument is to walk away.

Rule 4: Work with, not against, the availability bias.

Amazon is close to getting sucked back into the brutal world of the availability bias:

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled.[1]Subsequently, under the availability heuristic people tend to heavily weigh their judgments toward more recent information, making new opinions biased toward that latest news.[2]

This is why I was so baffled when I saw the article on Medium earlier today.

In the world of persuasion, association is everything. In this instance Amazon went back into the mud to correct a perceived wrong with logic and clarity. Unfortunately, all they have to show for it is a muddy suit and a reinvigorated crowd full of haters.

Update:

It looks like Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has a name for the “change the subject” tactic: The High Ground Maneuver. From looking at his blog it looks like he has some amazing content on the topic of persuasion. Check it out.

Jason Hreha