PR using owned media for modernised crisis communications rebuttal

Amazon is the latest big company to use modernised crisis communications to rebut attacks in mainstream media.

Jay Carney, Amazon’s Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs, used a self-published article on Medium to rebut a critical New York Times article and attack its credibility. Carney is no stranger to high stakes, negative attacks by journalists as he previously served as White House Press Secretary for Barack Obama, having previously served vice president Jo Biden.

This was no rapid rebuttal piece, but instead a carefully researched take down of the credibility of the New York Times reporters and the ex-Amazon employees they had used as sources. The original New York Times article on Amazon’s alleged brutal workplace culture appeared in August. At the time there was a much shared rebuttal post on LinkedIn by an Amazon engineering manager and Jeff Bezos circulated an internal memo to employees, which was published by several media outlets (itself a good example of how in today’s porous corporate environment all internal communications is external communications).

However, once Carney had lit the fuse the situation was quick to explode. Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times hit back saying that the paper stood by its original story and accusations. Interestingly Baquet chose to hit back, not on the New York Times’ own website, but in his own Medium article. Jay Carney then responded in kind, again on Medium.

Historically, crisis communicators only had two levers to pull. The main one was the response they gave to mainstream media – the statements issued, the news conferences held and the interviews granted. All of which would hopefully lead positive earned media coverage, or least minimise the negative earned coverage. The second, used far less frequently in the days before search and social, was paid advertising. The apology advert or produce recall advert in the national newspaper.

But today, the most powerful levers are increasingly becoming the owned and shared media channels. Jay Carney chose to use a third party publishing platform for Amazon’s response, but his robust defence of Amazon wasn’t too different to Walmart’s similar rebuttal of critical New York Times’ coverage last year. In Walmart’s case its then VP of Corporate Communications, David Tovar, used the Walmart Today blog to publish the New York Times opinion editorial with all of the inaccuracies blatantly marked with sarcastic comments in red pen.

In the UK the BBC has used its owned PR channels (because of course it would be ethically wrong to use its news channels) to rebut inaccurate criticism from The Sun, who some would claim deliberately uses its news pages to attack the publicly owned BBC in order to promote the cause of its proprietor Rupert Murdoch, owner of global media conglomerate News Corporation. The Sun attacked the BBC for paying ‘greedy MPs’ to appear on its shows. The reality is that the BBC doesn’t pay MPs to appear, unless the MPs are actually working as say presenters of a documentary or panellists on an entertainment show. The BBC used its own Media Centre on its corporate website to highlight the fact The Sun also paid MPs who write columns and articles for it.

Many politicians use the tactic very effectively. European Union Commission president Jean Claude Juncker has tweeted photographs of inaccurate newspaper articles, complete with his own hand-written corrections. Former Labour Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has used his Twitter account to demand and receive apologies from journalists and media who have reported inaccurate stories about him.

Using owned and shared media for rebuttal and crisis communications isn’t just a tactic that big companies can use. In 2012 The Sunday Times Insight team, which specialises in ‘stings’ where its journalists pretend to be someone else, attempted a ‘sting’ on a former Conservative Party PR adviser to see if they could get him to agree to ‘cash for access’ to senior government ministers. It failed because Ed Staite used his Twitter account and blog to rebut the Sunday Times’ allegations. He even went as far as publishing the actual proposal for the work he did offer to do. This effectively killed the story before The Sunday Times had an opportunity to publish it meaning that it was relegated to a tiny inside article, rather than the front page splash the Insight team had undoubtedly intended.

However, companies shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the best thing to do in a crisis is instantly to use its own or third party channels to publish its side of the argument. There are a number of factors to consider first:

  • Are you going to make it a bigger story by drawing attention to it than by simply ignoring it?
  • Who is the best person to do the rebuttal? Should it come from an expert in the company (e.g. an engineer or scientists), the CEO or senior management, or from a senior PR person?
  • Is it best on an owned media channel like your blog or corporate newsroom, or should it be on a shared media channel like Medium, Tumblr or LinkedIn Pulse?
  • Can you be certain of all the facts? What PR teams and senior management are told by people elsewhere in the company isn’t always the truth. You can damage your credibility going forward by mistakenly using their information.
  • Mark Twain advised “You never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” Well today it’s so fast, easy and cheap to create a social media account or start a blog that theoretically anyone can buy ink by the barrel, but mainstream media tend still to have the biggest barrels so pick your fights carefully.

If you want to find out more about how you can modernise your crisis communications and issues management then get in touch for a no obligations chat.

Photo credit: Newspaper Club via Flickr




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