Crisis Experts Debate Amazon’s Latest Move: Another Shoe to Drop?

When a New York Times piece came out in August that described Amazon’s workplace culture as “bruising,” Amazon cofounder and CEO Jeff Bezos acted quickly to dampen the story’s blow. He wrote a memo to employees saying the account “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know” and pointed out a separate piece by an Amazon engineer who described the Times article as “utter reader bait.”

It was a smart approach, suggests Marina Ein, whose Washington, D.C.-based crisis communications firm has represented Michael Milken and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, among others. “I thought the company was acting on very good advice,” she says.

More confounding to Ein is a new post authored by former journalist and current Amazon spokesman Jay Carney, in which Carney not only systematically attacks the now two-month-old Times piece for being imbalanced but works to undermine several former employees quoted in the story.

One is former site merchandiser Bo Olson, who spent roughly 20 months at Amazon and had told the Times for its story, “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face . . . Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

Wrote Carney of Olson today: “His brief tenure at Amazon ended after an investigation revealed he had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records. When confronted with the evidence, he admitted it and resigned immediately.”

“I think it’s crazy,” says Ein of Carney’s unexpected missive. “When you have a damaging story with collateral implications for the future, you tamp it down. You don’t reawaken it and draw more attention to it than it might have received in the first place.” (According to the Times, its Amazon piece has received more than five million page views already, making it among the outlet’s most-read stories of the year.)

Outing Olson makes it worse, says Ein. “Not only does it sound vindictive, but I don’t think there’s any time that it’s wise for a company to get into the personal and confidential details of an employee’s hiring or firing.”

In his post, Carney explains that Amazon felt compelled to take action when the New York Times wouldn’t listen to its arguments. “We presented the Times with our findings several weeks ago, hoping they might take action to correct the record. They haven’t, which is why we decided to write about it ourselves.”

Unlike Ein, crisis manager Jeff Eller approves of Amazon’s no-holds-barred strategy, noting that it has worked effectively in the past, including in a similar tussle between the New York Times and Wal-mart last year. One day after the Times published an opinion piece that characterized Wal-mart as a “net drain on taxpayers,” Wal-mart battled back, cheekily annotating the piece with notes that include, “We are the largest taxpayer in America. Can we see your math?”

Says Eller, who represented Firestone in its tire recall in 2000 and General Motors in its ignition switch recall last year, “There’s this inherent perception that the Times is too big to tackle. But I don’t think so. They put their pants on just like everybody does.”

Still, fighting back aggressively is one thing. Fighting back long after people have stopped talking about a story is another. Certainly, the timing of Amazon’s newest response to the Times is, well, strange.

Indeed, a third, top crisis manager who asked not to be named has another theory about Amazon’s latest lob, which is that another shoe may be about to drop.

“It could be that Amazon is pissed off,” as seems to be the case, says this veteran of public relations. “Amazon could also be trying to issue a warning; it could be that there’s a class-action suit in the works.” (Indeed, employment attorneys have previously suggested that a “creative attorney” could probably make hay with the anecdotes published in the Times.)

A third possibility, suggests this person, is that “something else is coming that we have no line of sight into yet, like a news magazine like ‘60 Minutes’ or ‘20/20’ that’s preparing a segment.”

Certainly, it wouldn’t be unprecedented, given the many Times stories to be picked up by other outlets, including nightly news magazines. Amazon is understandably a popular topic for their viewers, too.

Alas, only time will tell if the story of Amazon’s workplace culture fades away again or there’s more to come.

Asked about Carney’s post today, a spokesman for “60 Minutes” said simply in an email, “We don’t discuss what we may or may not be working on.”

Amazon declined to comment further.