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MediaBistroHMATIME is pleased to announce that its very own Abbie S. Fink was quoted in a recent mediabistro blog about crisis communications, which was written by Whitney McKnight, a New Jersey-based writer and public relations practitioner. Below is an excerpt, but if you are a mediabistro member, you can get all of the case studies in the blog here.

With the help of some PR veterans, we turn recent adventure in crisis communications into a case study you can use to improve your own snafu response.

Amazon Appears to Censor Certain Authors
After several authors noticed that their titles had lost their sales rankings on
Amazon.com, they emailed the retailer in search of an explanation. The company responded that certain titles were not being listed due to their "policy regarding content." Since it seemed to be affecting mainly GLBT and erotica titles, an angry chorus of tweets erupted online, accusing the company of censorship, and calling for a boycott. Bloggers soon followed suit.

What they did

Two days after the storm broke, an Amazon spokeswoman told The Associated Press that "an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error" and a "system glitch" were responsible for de-listing not only thousands of GLBT and erotica titles, but mind-body-spirit, sexual reproduction, and other titles, but that the situation was being corrected and measures were being taken to "make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future."

What experts say should have happened

  • Eric Yaverbaum, president of Ericho Communications in Tampa/ greater NYC and the author of Public Relations for Dummies and Leadership Secrets of the World's Most Successful CEO's, wonders why a company that pioneered online retailing chose not to engage the online community where the discussion was happening. "While the AP is obvious, that's a very short list. This started on Twitter. They should be taking Twitter as seriously as they would The New York Times." Yaverbaum says it appears Amazon lacks a crisis team that "thrives on the heat of the moment." He says that if it took the company two full days to respond, then "they clearly had no plan in place to address an issue like this." Meanwhile, he says, "They are not helping clarify for me how they feel about the issue." He points out that first they said it was a policy decision, then they said it was human error. This ambiguity leaves it open for others to interpret what they want, which Yaverbaum indicates can ultimately hurt them because, "Perception matters at the cash register."
    • Conclusion: "This should be an opportunity for Amazon," says Yaverbaum. "They have built a very successful brand, ready made for the generation born with a mouse in their hand. Now they should be engaging Twitter." But unless Amazon really does want the public to believe they are targeting certain materials, he says the first thing Amazon needs to do is let buyers know that not certain titles were affected and why, but how they feel about these titles having been de-listed, so as to avoid the impression that they were actually censoring their inventory. "And I would get on that yesterday," he says.
  • Brian Reich, principal at EchoDitto, Inc. in Washington, D.C./Boston, author of Media Rules!, and co-team leader for former presidential candidate Howard Dean's online campaign presence, says, "Amazon's first mistake was that they didn't take the initial wave of complaints seriously. If it's important enough for someone to bring up to your company, then you need to respond." And not, he says with "lazy language. By pulling out the formulaic response about the policy, they didn't really listen. But today's PR is always a conversation." Compounding their initial dismissal of the issue, says Reich, is that they still haven't fully explained what happened. "I see no advantage to them being opaque about it, either." Reich says it's not hard for Amazon to do what needs to be done, but that they aren't making the effort. "They should be flooding the zone with information. Otherwise, it's not hard for people to fill the vacuum and assume things that might not be true. Amazon needs to be proactive, show us the glitch, tell us how they found it, are fixing it, explain what they've learned and how they're preventing it from happening again," he says.
    • Conclusion: Reich says Amazon's challenge is two-part: first, even if their sales aren't significantly affected, he says they now have to combat people thinking that the company has a distinct point of view about the GLBT community. "So far," he says, "the story is defined by Amazon's silence." The second is that they need to consider who's on their front line of customer complaints. "They need people who can listen to what's being said and put it in perspective so there's a human connection."
  • Abbie Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, says, "Amazon didn't react fast enough," especially given that they are big players online "And when they did react, it wasn't consistent," says Fink, referring to the first response being that it was policy, the second that it was a glitch. "They seemed completely unprepared. If Amazon actually is trying to control their inventory rankings, she says, "then whatever conversation is going on about their business decisions needs to be communicated to their public response team. Any change in business as usual requires a ready response." That Amazon chose to go to a more traditional media outlet, the AP, omitting Twitter altogether, also concerned Fink, who says that, "Today, media is media. It's not social media versus traditional media, or print versus online. You need to use the appropriate channels to reach the audience where they are." For that reason, she says that at a minimum, Amazon should have had a link on their home page to a place they were Twittering about the situation.
    • Conclusion: Fink warns that Amazon had better get prepared for another onslaught, whether about this or another event. "Right now, they don't seem proactive. They should have a response team tracking the Internet at all times, looking for trends in what is being said about them," she says.
HMA Public Relations
HMA Public Relations
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