MIA: Authenticity and Transparency at Amazon, VP Pence’s Office

When PR pros use the words internal communications, usually they're talking about messaging from corporate leaders to staff. Traditionally, internal communications is considered an afterthought, a low priority. At this uncertain moment, though, it’s taken on a renewed importance. Over-communication with staff has become the order of the day. In a PRNEWS survey earlier this week, a significant majority of respondents (65 percent) said now is not the time to ease up on over-communication with staff. As Bell's CCO and chief of staff Robert Hastings told PRNEWS, "This is a human crisis. People expect a human response."

Internal communications mean something else at Amazon currently. The online behemoth is attempting to stifle large groups of its corporate employees from communicating with each other, Vox's

On Monday, Amazon’s IT department alerted corporate employees who manage large email listservs (500 employees or more) that they need approval from a moderator before posting messages.

[PR Takeaway: Expect that what goes on inside your company will find its way into the media or social media. In a sense, internal communications no longer exists. Take a look at what occurred this week on Tribune Publishing's internal Slack channel and was later spread across the news. ]

Control the Message

Amazon has thousands of employee listservs, according to Vox. The issue for Amazon is that corporate employees are using its listservs to discuss matters the company wants kept quiet. One of those is how the company is protecting warehouse workers against coronavirus. That's a delicate subject at Amazon. The company's had unfavorable coverage about this subject recently.

Amazon has fired employees, warehouse and corporate, who helped lead or organize protests about the company's coronavirus response. Several senators have begun investigating the firing of at least one warehouse worker, Chris Smalls (more on him below).

In addition, Amazon lost a court case in France, where unions representing warehouse employees argued that Amazon failed to protect workers adequately against coronavirus.

Amazon has tried to change the narrative about protecting its warehouse employees (see tweet below). Protecting employees, including testing them and providing PPE, could push Amazon to lose $1.5 billion during the second quarter, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said this week. Amazon reported booming sales in the first quarter, in part owing to deliveries made during the virus.

Amazon also has another issue with corporate employees communicating. A Wall Street Journal article last month alleged Amazon routinely uses sales data from third-party sellers to create competing products. The article alleges Amazon counsel Nate Sutton lied during a July hearing on Capitol Hill when he said the company does not do that. Sources for the Journal's story were Amazon employees. Today Republicans and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee called on Bezos to appear before the committee to discuss the matter.

To Mask or Not to Mask

In an indirectly related story, the office of Vice President Mike Pence allegedly threatened to retaliate against Voice of America journalist Steve Herman. His offense was tweeting that Pence’s staff knew of the Mayo Clinic's mask requirement. In a widely covered story, Pence appeared at the famed clinic Tuesday unmasked.

A member of the VP’s press pool, Herman alleges Pence's office sent him and other journalists briefing papers beforehand that said to wear masks. The VP's office's beef with Herman, it said, was that he made public off-the-record briefing materials.

Karen Pence said her husband was unaware of the mask rule. Made during a Fox News interview yesterday, her claim goes against a Mayo Clinic tweet from Tuesday that said the mask rule was made clear to the VP’s office. That tweet eventually was removed.

It’s not clear whether or not Herman will be barred from traveling with the VP’s press pool.

Later in the day, Pence donned a mask while making a public appearance.

PR Takeaways: 1. PR counsels authenticity and transparency. It seems to be in small supply at Amazon. 2. For the VP's office, own your mistakes. It's a better tactic than blaming journalists.  3. For Amazon and the VP's office: Always consider the court of public opinion when crafting messages. Strong-arming makes for bad optics. 4. Avoid making statements to the press or Congress that you can't prove with facts.

Amazon said it fired staffer Chris Smalls, who organized a walkout in NY, because he violated Amazon safety rules. Speaking out against Amazon's coronavirus response had nothing to do with Smalls' dismissal, apparently.

Similarly, Pence’s office claims it’s weighing punishing Herman for making an off-the-record document public. Embarrassing the VP for his failure wear a mask had nothing to do with its displeasure for Herman, apparently.


This article is part of PRNEWS' daily COVID-19 coverage, click here to see the latest updates.