Last week's faceoff between the world's most respected media outlet and one of the most innovative and disruptive technology companies demonstrates the best about both parties.
If there was any doubt about the continuing influence of the New York Times, then the reaction to a piece about Amazon’s workplace culture from The Gray Lady surely put that doubt to bed.
At the time of writing, the piece had garnered almost 5,800 comments on the Times’ website and stimulated acres of newsprint, broadcast coverage, and web noise around the issue. A follow-up piece about reaction to the story by the Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan received over 160 comments in its own right.
The story is a great case study of contemporary media relations, but also of the modern interlinking of owned, earned, and shared media within that process.
It also gave Amazon’s new SVP of global corporate affairs, former White House press secretary Jay Carney, a first high-profile chance to flex his broadcast-media guns since starting work at the Seattle-based tech behemoth five months ago.
I thought Carney did very well, presenting a balanced and well-argued response to the Times’ conclusions that were persuasive — and that were certainly tested, but not rebutted, on Monday morning by CBS This Morning presenters including Charlie Rose and Gayle King.
Carney’s contribution, beamed from a studio in Amazon’s hometown of Seattle, was preceded by an in-studio interview with Times journalist Jodi Kantor, one of the joint bylines on the thoroughly researched piece, which claimed to have spoken to 100 current and former Amazon employees.
Carney said Bezos and long-term Amazon employees who have been there 10 to 15 years didn’t recognize the picture of the company painted by the Times piece, saying Amazon is an "incredibly compelling place" and that its employees are "excited" to come to work there.
Bezos, who declined to be interviewed for the initial Times piece, although several other execs were made available, wrote a letter to employees after the article was published, and his views expressed in that letter were incorporated in a follow-up piece in the Times published on Tuesday.
It included his claim that Amazon would not tolerate the "shockingly callous management practices" described in the article and urging employees to contact him directly if they knew of such instances. He encouraged employees to carefully read the piece, but also pointed them to a separate piece on LinkedIn by Amazon engineer Nick Ciubotariu describing the strengths of the company’s workplace culture.
On CBS, Carney suggested any company with a cruel, Darwinian, Dickensian workplace culture such as the one portrayed by the Times would not be able to survive and thrive in the ultra-competitive high-tech industry talent environment.
Addressing Rose by his first name, Carney noted Amazon has grown from 28,000 to 183,000 employees in the past five years due to its "spirit of innovation" and because "employees like it so much."
He admitted Amazon is "not perfect" but reiterated he "didn’t recognize" what he saw in the article and that the company wouldn’t have been the success it is if it had behaved as was described in the Times.
In response to the accusation that Amazon failed to treat employees who had suffered severe health issues or family problems with empathy or humanity, Carney quoted the counterexample of a woman he worked with whose husband suffered from a rare cancer and who had been given enormous support from Amazon over several years.
Carney said he hadn’t been able to check the anonymous or on-the-record sources quoted in the piece in the time between the publishing of the article and this interview with CBS on Monday morning, but emphasized Amazon has "zero tolerance of behavior by managers that is not empathetic."
When asked if he had a concrete rebuttal of the piece and the reporting within it, Carney said the story was based on an assumption of high staff turnover and attrition, but that Amazon’s numbers were "completely consistent" with industry standards at other major tech companies in the US. "There’s no difference at Amazon," he added.
He said what is different to other tech companies is that 150,000 of the 183,000 people who work at Amazon are in jobs that didn’t exist five years previously — including his own role, which was created six months ago.
Rose asked him straight out if there was "no paid paternity leave at Amazon" and Carney admitted there wasn’t, but pointed out this is consistent with other companies in the tech sector and about 80% of all US companies, which he highlighted The New York Times "didn’t note."
Carney said a lot of companies around the country and in the tech sector are looking at their policies on maternity leave and paternity leave and evaluating them and "we sure are" and "we share the same kind of challenges on issue like diversity" as other companies in our sector and "we are committed to making the situation better."
He closed with the rejoinder that the lack of paternity leave is written up in the Times article as if it is something surprising when in fact it’s the case at 80% of companies.
The three experienced and skilled CBS interrogators didn’t land a blow and Carney’s performance was a master class in media messaging that is worth studying. He was reasonable, well-informed, persuasive, and personable.
The only shame was that he wasn't able to go head to head with the Times reporter — I would have liked to have seen that and, in truth, I don't know if that was by Carney's design or pure physical location and timing restrictions.
In actuality, he didn’t have any major factual rebuttals of the Times story. But he managed to communicate the perception that certain assumptions or impressions in the piece were misleading and not inconsistent with tech sector standards.
That’s why his job was created six months ago and he’s already earning his no-doubt substantial pay check. The time he spent under the white-hot heat of the White House press secretary spotlight was clearly well spent — and it further explains why so many former politicos are now in such demand for senior Silicon Valley communications roles.
It’s a fascinating case study in modern media, and modern media relations. It’s certainly true that the New York Times is held to higher standards than other media outlets. But that’s why it’s the most-respected newspaper in the world.
The Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet stood by the article and praised the "quality of the reporting and writing, and the rich, subtle, sophisticated portrait the story painted of this major transformational company." He said he disagrees entirely with his own public editor and some of her conclusions and that: "I love this story. I’m extremely proud of it."
I love the fact the Times is still investing in in-depth investigative reporting such as this. I loved that its editor backed his reporters to the hilt before and after publication. I love that the Times followed up the piece with response and context and that its public editor tested the premise of the piece as rigorously as third-party commentators such as Charlie Rose and Gayle King.
But I also loved Jay Carney’s performance in responding to the article on behalf of Amazon and demonstrating why high-quality communications professionals are worth their weight in gold.
I hope he can now play a pivotal part in pushing forward more progressive policies at Amazon on maternity and paternity leave, diversity, and workplace conditions, so the company can tell a story in the future of pushing innovation in those areas as well as its disruptive e-commerce and cloud computing business models.
Steve Barrett is editor-in-chief of PRWeek.
This article first appeared on prweek.com.