Should Amazon Care About Times' Hit Piece?

Last Saturday, the New York Times ran a 6,000 word hit piece on amazon.com, the upshot being that the online retailer was a rough place to work. Some of the most damaging allegations revolved around the thesis that Amazon's operating principle was one of social Darwinism where white collar managers were routinely pitted against each other and forced to work inhumane hours, all while feeling obligated to push through serious medical problems.

Amazon chose not to be interviewed for the story. In the antiquated thinking of crisis management, a target should sit down with its attacker to "tell its side of the story." This optimistic chestnut, while sometimes worthwhile, is rapidly falling into the dustbin of damage control dogma for a few reasons.

For one thing, targets are increasingly realizing that Digital Age journalism is more akin to the agenda-driven "pamphleteering" that took place at the founding of the American republic than it is the journalism of the mid-20th century where the dominating ethic was one of attempted balance. Furthermore, it has never been easier for a news outlet to attack a big target: Find internal critics and self-styled whistleblowers, add water, and stir. So why sit down with an outlet that has whipped up this simple cocktail in order to destroy or harm you?

As I discuss in my new book on modern scandal, GLASS JAW, the public relations industry continues to promulgate the idea that meeting with one's critics yields dividends in large measure because that's how they make their living. If you're not pitching reporters and coordinating interviews, how do you demonstrate value?

Today, however, the good news is that attack targets like Amazon have other communications options at their disposal.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos swiftly sent a detailed email to his employees emphasizing that the Amazon depicted in the Times story was not the company he knew. Bezos' e mail went public immediately as he knew it would. He said that he would not tolerate the "shockingly callous management practices" highlighted in the story, if true, and urged "Amazonians" to report any stories such as those that were detailed. He even encouraged employees to read the article. This led to Amazon employees to take to social media with both confirmations and denials of the article's content.

Bezos recognized that there would be no way to "control the debate" or "change the conversation" -- crisis management canards -- but he could let it bleed out in the short term which would encourage the controversy to fade in the longer term while making an effort to fix the problems within Amazon.

In the end, Bezos surely recognizes that the best thing Amazon has going for it has little to do with public relations and everything to do with the company's product. Consumers want to use Amazon and a vast majority are impressed with the Amazon experience to the point that they keep coming back. Amazon provides instant shopping gratification and, unlike so many of today's technologies that claim -- but fail -- to be user-friendly, the service is staggeringly easy to use.

When I read the Times' story, my lizard brain thought "Whatever Bezos is doing to make Amazon work so well, he's doing right," at least from a consumer perspective. Put differently, stories about a cutthroat work environment are largely collateral to the core product, and Amazon has a good one. Apple and Nike have been accused of far worse in the labor department and have navigated these challenges with relative ease.

And speaking of the alleged Amazon work environment, is there any more hackneyed story than "my boss is an ogre" or "I hate my job?" While I don't mean to downplay some of the more disturbing allegations made in the Times article, I expect Amazon's challenge resulting from the story will be one of employee relations, not external crisis management, which appears to be Bezos' well-advised focus.

Stuart Dezenhall contributed to this report.