Amazon Public Relations: How the World’s Biggest Marketplace Built its Audience
When it comes to Amazon public relations, the giant online retailer has always been a little unorthodox.
Back in 2008, for instance, they enlisted a band of regular users to do PR for them, called the ‘Holiday Customer Review Team’.
And this forward-thinking mindset has served them well. Since the company was founded in 1994 in Jeff Bezos’ garage, it’s grown to be one of the biggest retailers in the world.
We take a look at Amazon’s most memorable PR moves over the past few years, including company warehouse tours, their PR head calling out The New York Times, and even people peeing in bottles (ew, yes, really).
First up, how does Amazon nurture its image as a forward-thinking company.
Changing the game: Amazon’s image as an innovator
Innovation is baked into Amazon’s identity.
Even back in 1999, media profiles were full of awe and wonder that you could buy books on the internet (what a concept!).
You might expect the company to have become complacent as it grew into the world’s biggest retailer. Not so. Over the past decade alone, Amazon has unveiled numerous new projects intended to revolutionise the shopping experience.
Most famously, this includes Amazon Prime Air, where miniature drones literally fly you your package from the shipping centre. The company is also actively researching Amazon Scout, a ground-based automated delivery service.
No fly zone
Despite being in the public consciousness for years, these services have yet to see widespread real-world adoption. In 2021, Amazon shut down the drone division of their UK operations completely.
By that metric, you might think it’s a failed concept. But that’s not why they exist.
It’s important to look at the attention these sci-fi services bring the company. That fifty-second Amazon Scout video got nearly half a million views, and an equally crazy clip of an Amazon-logoed blimp deploying drones got close to 300,000 views. Similarly, a 2016 trailer for Amazon Go, a store with no checkouts or human operators, got over fifteen million views.
Amazon’s numerous technological innovations clearly aren’t just meant to bring in profits. They aren’t quite PR stunts, but they do send a message: this is a company always looking towards the future. Given the high view counts these projects get online, it’s clear the ideas resonate with plenty of people.
For more about PR stunts read: What are PR Stunts, Anyway?
Some companies keep their R&D projects secret. Amazon, in contrast, is open and public about its forays into new technology. This builds a strong image of the brand as innovative and always ready to shake up the marketplace.
Your own brand’s next product launch might not be quite as sci-fi, but you can still take a page from the Amazon public relations book. A new product or service isn’t just a new revenue stream. It’s also an opportunity to reinforce your brand image and get people talking.
Taking the pee? Amazon has a sordid PR crisis
It’s no secret that Amazon has faced criticism for its working conditions, especially its warehouse jobs. But things took a disturbing turn in 2019, when it emerged that some workers were so busy they had to pee into plastic bottles rather than take breaks.
Unsurprisingly, Amazon denied these allegations.
In a staggering display of hubris, the official Amazon News Twitter account sent a snarky message to U.S. Congressman Mark Pocan, after he criticised their working standards: ‘You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us. The truth is, we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and healthcare from day one.’
That tweet only got around 4,800 likes to 18.5K replies. In other words, it was a classic case of getting ratioed. Internet denizens used the tweet’s bold language and shaky assertions (like the idea that nobody works for exploitative companies) to mock Amazon.
Things only got worse from there. On further investigation, Amazon had to admit that drivers ‘can and do’ urinate in bottles in an open apology to Pocan.
Here’s the thing. If you have a PR problem, lying about it isn’t a good move. Getting defensive and self-righteous on Twitter is an even worse one, especially if you’re talking to a senator.
Putting the public in public relations
Now we’ve seen the wrong way to tackle this, let’s focus on two of the more effective ways Amazon is responding to this same PR issue.
First up are its warehouse tours.
Amazon’s warehouse tours: good for PR?
We’ve already seen how the company’s working conditions have hurt Amazon public relations. But these accusations have been around since 2011, when a heatwave sent multiple workers to hospital. Amazon allegedly hired a line of ambulances to stand outside the warehouse rather than stop working.
Amazon’s main way of combating this negative image is to let the public look around their warehouses.
Naturally, the point of a guided tour is that it lets you put on a good face. As a writer from Vox says, Amazon’s tour guides follow a script that promotes the company’s best aspects:
‘He led us […] past ID-activated vending machines full of safety gear and Tylenol packets and about a dozen paper signs offering “Amazonians” career support, day care advice, mental health assistance, […] robust health benefits, and free community college classes.’
These tours aren’t just meant for the general public, of course.
Local newspapers and media outlets are often given special access, like BirminghamLive in 2019. The resulting story presented Amazon’s warehouses as technological wonders of logistics, where hundreds of robots zip around fulfilling orders. Essentially, they reinforce Amazon’s public relations stance of being a highly-efficient, futuristic company.
Reaching the next Amazon customer
Besides journalists, Amazon has also been clever by targeting schools and children.
In 2017, for instance, the company offered tours to over 250 students at nearby primary schools in the Scottish town of Dunfermline. Similar to delivering free breakfasts to children during the coronavirus pandemic, this established Amazon as a positive force in children’s minds, at an impressionable age. It was a clever way to plant the seeds of good PR in future generations.
Of course, the public tours have their critics. Pretty much everybody expects them to be a curated, sanitised view of what life is really like at the company. One journalist for The New Yorker likened them to Potemkin villages: fronts made to make Amazon look good, and nothing more. That lack of authenticity hampers the tours’ effectiveness.
But on the whole, the tours are good for Amazon public relations. A person’s first-hand experience of a pleasant, clean, friendly warehouse is far more impactful than an abstract story they read in the news.
Similarly, your brand should reach people on a personal, individual level. You don’t have to offer tours: a message from your brand’s Twitter account or a gift package sent to someone’s door can be just as effective.
Going on the offensive: is aggressive PR the right move?
Next, let’s look at another way Amazon counters its negative image: by fighting back.
Most PR workers are nice people. We want to foster positive personal relationships with our audience and other brands. Fire-and-brimstone rhetoric doesn’t usually achieve that. Which is why this 2015 Medium post from Jay Carney, Amazon’s public relations chief, is so fascinating.
Carney’s post was responding to a damning article in The New York Times which accused Amazon of fostering a harsh corporate culture. A particularly juicy quote stands out: ‘Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.’
It’s a classic PR crisis. Your brand is being named-and-shamed in one of the world’s biggest newspapers. What do you do?
Carney went on the offensive with a post which was unbelievably aggressive. He attacked several former Amazon workers by name. He directly questioned the integrity of the NYT reporters, essentially calling them liars and provocateurs. And he made almost no defence of the company’s workplace culture, besides calling it ‘demanding’.
This aggressive PR strategy wasn’t a one-off either. When U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders criticised Amazon in 2020 for not paying its workers enough, Carney once again went on the attack by telling Sanders to raise the minimum wage instead.
For more on crisis management read: Crisis Management in Public Relations.
Does throwing out the rulebook work?
It’s like Amazon let their top PR guy go rogue. But as an article from Wired points out, Carney’s aggressive style has its perks. For example, letting Carney respond to these stories directly gave credibility to Amazon’s response. Most companies would have the CEO sign a ghost-written statement, which everybody knows is just a fluff piece. In contrast, Amazon let the public know they weren’t interested in pretences like that.
More importantly, Carney’s fiery rhetoric is calculated. A meek rebuttal tucked away on a company blog wouldn’t get any attention, but his attacks do. When news sites mock Amazon’s PR for being aggressive, they’re really just giving the company more free publicity.
The moral of the story is that sometimes, you have to throw out the rulebook.
While being nice and friendly is the bread-and-butter of public relations, getting your hands dirty can be an effective response to a PR crisis. If people are accusing you of something entirely unfair, taking a strong stance can shift public opinion back in your favour. Just make sure your confidence is warranted, unless you want your own ‘peeing in bottles’ moment.
Using Amazon to boost your own PR
We’ve seen how Amazon public relations works. But how can you use Amazon’s PR approach to enhance your own efforts?
A 2020 study from data intelligence company Morning Consult found that more Americans trusted Amazon than the government, religious leaders or even Tom Hanks.
PR campaigns often piggyback off the authority of other brands. After all, that’s why partnerships are such a big deal. Because the public trusts Amazon, they also afford a basic level of trust to the brands it chooses to host on its site.
Read more about partnerships: The PR Power of Brand Partnerships.
Here are some other reasons why Amazon is a good choice for a PR partnership.
- People go there primed to buy. Every impression you get on Amazon is from someone actively looking to purchase.
- It comes with the standby of community engagement (reviews, ratings and comment sections,) built-in. It’s therefore incredibly easy to reach out to your community.
- It’s fast. You don’t need to spend time or money investing in an SEO strategy — Amazon’s search feature takes care of most of it for you.
Okay, but how do you use Amazon most effectively?
The most important step is to build attractive product listings. Like the landing page on your website, it’s the first thing your audience will see. Use plenty of high-quality images and clear, informative copy to draw in readers. And keep it skimmable — there are so many products out there, most people won’t bother to read detailed descriptions.
You should also take advantage of Amazon’s community engagement features.
Be as active on your product page as you can, and that doesn’t just mean responding to reviews. Many products also have FAQ sections where customers can ask questions about the product before buying. Answering these will show your brand is highly engaged and cares about the customer experience.
Finally, you should integrate Amazon with the rest of your PR activity.
Happily, Amazon makes this incredibly easy and even incentivises it. A 2021 programme, for instance, directly rewarded brands who drove traffic to Amazon listings from off-site.
You can also create coupon codes specifically for sharing on social media. This encourages existing fans to follow you on other platforms in the hopes of snagging a nice deal, and funnels people who find you on social media to your Amazon page.
Basically, it’s a win-win situation.