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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…

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