The ongoing dispute between Amazon and Hachette regarding the cost of e-books has gotten ugly and is affecting the whole supply chain. From a PR standpoint it may get still worse. The fight broke out two months ago after Amazon reportedly began seeking concessions on book sales from Hachette, which Hachette was unwilling to give. In the latest salvo, Amazon in early July proposed giving Hachette authors all the revenue from their e-books sales on Amazon while the parties continue to negotiate a new contract. Hachette dismissed the proposal outright.
As the conflict drags on, it raises several questions for communicators who may have to provide air cover if their brand or organization is involved in a drag-out fight with a business partner, vendor or affiliate. When C-level managers dig in their heels and refuse to blink, PR pros need to think about the use of language as it relates to the conflict, perception and, perhaps most important, consumer sentiment.
“You have to circle the wagons from the very beginning when the brand may be in for a protracted battle,” said Simon Owens, director of digital content at LEVICK, “You first need to develop a ‘Question’ document to anticipate every question and what the official response should be. You need one document for the media and one for rapid-response via social media.”
PR pros also need to craft a “documentation and discovery” strategy in case certain information gets leaked to the media, which could negatively taint one party or the other as it relates to the dispute, Owens added. (Think YouTube showing Viacom employees uploading YouTube video content when Viacom sued YouTube for alleged copyright infringement.)
When companies are bogged down by conflict, media statements may come fast and furious, so PR pros have to exercise caution when it comes to the use of language. In late May, for example, Amazon released a statement, including, “If you do need one of the affected titles quickly, we regret the inconvenience and encourage you to purchase a new or used version from one of our third-party sellers or from one of our competitors.”
“Telling me to buy from a competitor means you don’t care about my business or, more important, my loyalty,” said Ethan Rasiel, CEO of Lightspeed Public Relations, and former PR director at Samsung Electronics America. “If skilled PR people were in the room when this statement was drafted, they would have jumped out of their seats upon hearing this. Message to PR people: Grab a spot at the table when a statement is fashioned, even if you have to push your way in the room, and don’t be shy once you are there. Be the voice of reason.”
Another factor for PR pros to consider is whether a company’s behavior during a conflict could come back to haunt the brand.
“There’s a potential that you create a perception of the company that you will have to deal with down the road,” said Larry Parnell, associate professor and director of The George Washington University Master’s in Strategic PR program. “You can’t get caught up in the moment, because you have to consider your company’s reputation in the future, including how regulators, employees, customers and your industry will perceive you after the situation is resolved.”
Chris Hammond, a senior VP for corporate communications at Wells Fargo, amplified that sentiment. Even for corporate juggernauts such as Amazon and Hachette, a solid reputation can be ephemeral.
“The longer a kerfuffle goes, the more risk there will be for compromising the organization’s reputation,” Hammond said. “At a certain point, consumers will take their pocketbook somewhere else for their reading needs.”
SIDEBAR: 3 PR Tips When Your Brand Is Involved in a Public Dust-up
The long simmering and now very public dispute between Amazon and Hatchette begs the question: How are the companies’ stakeholders reacting? Getting the communications strategy right—and protecting the brand—requires having a good sense of what the people and groups the companies care about are thinking and doing (or not doing). Armed with this knowledge, Amazon, Hachette, or any company in a similar situation, can use one or a combination of the following stakeholder-informed communications approaches:
▶ Targeted stakeholder outreach. The Amazon/Hatchette situation seems ripe for a stakeholder-based communications strategy. Such a strategy recognizes that, for example, publishers, authors, investors and readers all have different interests. While a company’s core messaging must never change depending on the audience, the emphasis on particular elements should. With this approach, communications is more of a partner to, not a driver toward, the business goal. Targeted communications can be used to educate, shore up and/or enlist stakeholders.
▶ Mobilize a coalition. The most proactive and resource-intensive option is to spur existing allies to become vocal advocates in a public campaign and to onboard others. This requires a base of supporters that can be moved to action in numbers great enough on social media platforms and effective enough to complement the pressure being exerted behind closed doors. In this case, the power seems to rest with customers.
▶ Focus on the endgame: If a company is confident that its stakeholders’ views can withstand negative public attention, an aggressive media strategy targeting the opposing company can help drive toward the business goal. Amazon’s public statements may be out of character and strike a discordant note among some customers, but these same people may continue to stream Amazon Prime movies and place diapers.com orders nonetheless. And if the heightened rhetoric shortens the time to a resolution, the brand pain may be worth it. This is not for the meek. Verbal volleys fuel media interest and can turn off brand loyalists.
Like most businesses at loggerheads, the parties will likely resolve their dispute one way or another. So best to keep your stakeholders close throughout the process with a communications approach that addresses their needs. That way, there will be less brand cleanup when the dust settles.
This sidebar was written by Jake Sargent, senior director of APCO Worldwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in the July 21, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.