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 communication means 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. Later, it spread across the media. ]

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 (or not) warehouse workers against coronavirus. That's a delicate subject at Amazon. The company's had unfavorable coverage about it recently.

Amazon has fired employees, warehouse and corporate, who helped lead or organize protests about the company's coronavirus response. Several senators are 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 the company failed to protect workers adequately.

Amazon has tried to change the narrative (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. Yet Amazon depends on workers. It reported booming sales in the first quarter, in part owing to sales during the virus.

Amazon also has another issue with corporate employees communicating internally. 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 about this during a July hearing on Capitol Hill. Sources for the Journal's story were Amazon employees.

To Mask or Not to Mask

In an indirectly related item, the office of VP 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 pertaining to mask wearing. Herman alleges the VP's office told him its beef is that he (Herman) exposed off-the-record briefing materials.

The plot thickens. Second Lady Karen Pence said on Fox News yesterday, her husband was unaware of Mayo's mask requirement. Oops. Mayo Clinic tweeted Tuesday that it made the mask rule clear to the VP’s office. The tweet eventually was removed.

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

PR Takeaways: 1. PR counsels authenticity and transparency. Both seem in small supply at Amazon. 2. For the VP's office, own your mistakes. It's a better tactic than blaming a journalist.  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. That goes for the Second Lady, too.

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

Similarly, as we noted above, Pence’s office claims it’s upset with Herman for making an off-the-record document public. Embarrassing the VP and his staff for his failure to wear a mask apparently had nothing to do with its distaste for Herman.


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