Does Amazon Firing Show PR Counsel on Reputation is Moot in the New Normal?

In normal times, workers speaking out against employers is a risky proposition. Doing so as a non-union worker is even riskier. The same holds when unions call a strike; it's a risky move. There are always people willing to cross picket lines. In this moment of massive unemployment, speaking out against an employer can be tantamount to suicide.

The standard PR advice holds that companies consider their public image and reputation when dealing with employee demands and strikes.

For example, Google, which prided itself as a progressive company, initially treaded delicately with employees who made demands and asked questions about sexual harassment policies and other issues in 2018. When Google staff planned a global walkout in October 2018, CEO Sundar Pichai told workers they’d have company support during the walkout.

Employers Emboldened

In the current environment, though, some employers seem emboldened. With unemployed workers desperate to fill jobs, it could become an unprecedented moment for companies to push back on staff. Standard PR advice might be tossed out the window.

For example, Amazon yesterday confirmed it fired employee Chris Smalls, who organized a walkout at an Amazon warehouse in NY, "Time" reported. Smalls and other workers were protesting the lack of coronavirus safety conditions in Amazon warehouses.

Amazon said it fired Smalls for violating safety procedures. Smalls, Amazon said in a statement, “received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk.” He “was asked to remain home with pay for 14 days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world. Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came on site today, March 30, further putting the teams at risk.”

Smalls says this is “ridiculous,” according to Time. He claims he was fired for coordinating the strike.

Rumbles about coronavirus safety procedures at Amazon warehouses and other companies' sites surfaced earlier in the month. Amazon denied the allegations. In addition, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos communicated with an open letter earlier this month, praising Amazon workers.

Meanwhile, a media report has Whole Foods workers in N.Y. planning a sick-out over safety conditions. The workers also want double time for working as the virus spreads. Amazon upped workers' pay by $2 per hour. In addition, Amazon says workers testing positive for the virus will receive 2 weeks' sick pay. The stores continue to upgrade their anti-virus safety procedures, Amazon said.

Amazon and Whole Foods are not unionized. In addition, even during normal times, a company as powerful as Amazon doesn't always need to heed standard PR advice.

Firing a Doctor

In a related story, Ming Lin, a physician, claims he was fired March 27, 2020, for speaking to media about working conditions at a Washington state hospital, according to Bloomberg.

“Nurses and other health care workers are being muzzled in an attempt by hospi­tals to preserve their image,” the Washington State Nurses Association said in a statement. “While hospi­tals give media tours and make state­ments touting their prepa­ra­tion for and response to the COVID-19 crisis, those on the front­ lines are being silenced.”

Media reports say certain hospitals have warned staff to avoid speaking with the media regarding working conditions, particularly surrounding lack of equipment. In some states, hospitals are overloaded with virus patients. Doctors, nurses and other personnel claim hospitals are short on ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, gloves and gowns.

It's clear hospitals are trying to manage the message, maintain their reputation and re-establish policies that call for communications staff to authorize media interviews.  At this point, it might be a case of getting the horse back in the barn. Content featuring nurses, doctors and other health care employees discussing PPE shortages, overcrowded conditions and 12-hour shifts already are in wide circulation on social media, in newspapers and on television.

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