Man alive, I had actual comics to review today, but then a major corporation’s public relations department had to go and make me mad.

If you missed the news, got hit with a heaping dose of rotten publicity this week. Somehow, either because of a computer glitch, hackers, or something else, books with GLBT, feminist, and health themes got reclassified as “adult” and de-listed — meaning you couldn’t find them if you did a search for them on the website. So you couldn’t buy “Brokeback Mountain,” “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” biographies of Oscar Wilde or Harvey Milk, or even books about rape survivors and preventing teen suicide — but you could definitely buy “Girls Gone Wild” videos, sex toys, “Mein Kampf,” and “The Turner Diaries.”

Unsurprisingly, the online world completely blew up. Twitter went wild, Facebook went wild, the blogosphere went wild. And justifiably so, I think — Amazon is probably the largest bookseller, online or off, in the world, and lots of people buy books there that are unavailable at their local bookstores. And I do think this was either an accidental computer foul-up or a case of someone hacking the Amazon ratings system somehow — Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ leftward political leanings are pretty well-known, and he’s not the kind of guy to just start censoring books he doesn’t agree with, much less books that he probably does agree with.

Anyway, I don’t want to talk about how it happened, because no one really knows yet. I don’t want to talk about the fallout, because no one knows what it might be.

I used to work as a public relations guy, so that’s what I’m gonna talk about.

Because this was an absolutely spectacular failure.

Part of the problem is that the story broke on Easter Sunday, when just about everyone at the company was at home with their families. I cut their PR guys a little slack for that — it wasn’t like they were all in the office when people found out about it. But the thing is, this was the major topic of discussion online Sunday and Monday. Twitter’s top “trend” for the last few days has been “#amazonfail” and I can’t count the number of angry blog posts I’ve read about this. On Sunday, it was already shaping up as a major PR disaster for Amazon, something that they’d have to address as quickly as possible.

But they didn’t address it.

Sure, they talked to a few reporters. They released some statements, finally, late in the day on Monday. But the one place you never saw an explanation or statement was on’s website. And that’s where you need it most, because that’s where people were going to see what Amazon had to say. It looked like Amazon was going to ignore the problem and hope it would all go away. In a case like this, the embarrassment caused by admitting that your site had a problem is vastly outweighed by the need to get unhappy customers back on your good side. Having this happen, whether it’s a glitch, a hack, or on purpose, is a disaster, but taking too long to respond just makes it worse.

The idea that Amazon couldn’t get started on a PR response because of the Easter holiday doesn’t hold water. If you’re the PR manager for a company the size of Amazon, and something like this blows up, you don’t come strolling into the office Monday morning at 9:30 or 10 to start meandering your way through a response. You’re in the office on Easter Sunday or as early as you can get in on Monday morning to make sure a response is ready and uploaded onto the front page. A web-savvy company should know better than to let Twitter and the blogs spend a couple of days talking about a problem like this. It reinforces every bad thing being said about the company.

I suspect that part of the problem was that the legal department got involved and screamed “Don’t say anything! We’ll get sued!” Of course, keeping sullenly silent won’t actually stop you from getting sued if someone wants to sue you. And prompt and effective public relations responses are the types of things that turn angry customers — and angry authors and publishers — into people who understand what happened and are willing to cut you some slack while you get the problem fixed. So the correct response to the legal team would’ve been to lock ’em in a storage room and release a statement anyway.

In summary, with the recent PR screwups by Amazon and, a few weeks back, by the Sci Fi Channel, I’m almost convinced that I’m the only person who has a single clue about public relations. I guess I should send ’em a few resumes…

No Comments

  1. Maxo Said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    This is an interesting perspective, and I agree that Amazon seriously mishandled the situation. I don’t know how or why it happened, but the delayed response from the company certainly doesn’t inspire confidence. My gut reaction now is that Amazon is just trying to spin some damage control out of what was a stupid and insulting misstep.

    And I went to the Web site this morning for just the reason you mentioned; I assumed (ha ha, joke’s on me) Amazon would have some sort of official response there. Nothing. OK, I thought, maybe it’s on the Amazon blog. More nothing. Amazon’s tepid response is making a bad situation worse, in my opinion, and it’s making me think the company deserves whatever fallout comes from it.

  2. Johnny Hughes Said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    At one point, Amazon quit selling my novel, Texas Poker Wisdom, and a great many books. They were still listed. You could buy them from many other dealers listed on Amazon’s site. It took about two days to correct the problem. I think this is a computer glitch, probably from some internal coding. Amazon’s computer workings and rankings system are really secret.

  3. Kenny Ketner Said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

    Amazon bought the company that lists all the books we sell online at my bookstore… I wonder if they removed any “offensive” titles from those search results? If so, that’s not just offensive — it impacts my business.

  4. GregS Said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    Just to offer the other opinion, why SHOULD Amazon comment? Before you get filled with more righteous indignation, let me explain. So, there’s rampant outrage on the blogosphere? So what. As a comics/anime/niche fan, I can say there’s a billion things that’ll get the blogosphere in a snit. People screamed about Firefly getting cancelled and when they put out a movie to meet that demand there was a collective “ho hum”. Think about it this way, suppose Amazon DOES comment, suppose they prostrate themselves before anyone who was offended by an event that (possibly) was not their fault and has since been fixed. So, then you get the fundie-wackos screaming about Amazon kow-towing to the gays (half of whom are possibly STILL offended because the apology may not have been sincere enough). So, much like Civil War, you’ve not only alienated one side by offending them, you now drive off the OTHER side by trying to “fix” things. (Assuming that it was not intentional) what “gain” is there in apologizing? How many people that shop on Amazon are “realistically” going to stop over this?

  5. WizarDru Said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 6:51 am

    I have to agree with GregS, here. Most people I work with are tech-savvy professionals, most of whom are regular Amazon customers. I have several friends who are homosexual, again who are also homosexual. Most of them are either ignorant or unconcerned about ‘amazonfail’. The fact that it already has a name based on a internet meme, three days later, only shows how fast the internet echo chamber works. In two weeks time, no one will care. How many people are still up in arms about ‘racefail’? How many people even knew about it in the first place? Hell, how many people even know about Twitter? Twitter itself has an unknown number of active subscribers….let’s assume that they doubled since last year to 2.4 million users (which we have no basis to believe, but as a thought exercise). That’s still a little more than 0.5% of America’s population…and given that people outside the US ‘tweet’, it’s probably much less than that. People are more likely to get upset about the latest WoW patch than know about the latest outrage assaulting the twitterverse or blogosphere.

    And Amazon knows this darned well. Quick, do you remember these previous ‘amazon outrages’? Rape Kit? Spore DRM? Price-test glitches? The Internet’s rage burns hot and fast. The general public might hear about it in a news blurb and then move on, forgetting about ten minutes later. It’s simply not a big deal and Amazon knows it.