Did This Viral Employee Rant Help or Hurt Amazon’s PR Crisis?

On Saturday, The New York Times published a scathing exposé on how a number of white-collar employees have been treated by Amazon (spoiler alert: terribly). Before the weekend was out, an Amazon employee had—according to himself—taken his own initiative to respond, point by point, to the entire story, leveling serious allegations against the journalists’ ethics along the way.

While there’s no evidence Amazon had any part in creating the post, there’s no doubt it was as impactful a PR response as they could have asked for. After all, traditional press releases in crisis situations are usually written off as company spin not to be taken at face value. Employee Nick Ciubotariu’s defense, on the other hand, reads as organic and sincere, while the content’s emotional heft and timing (it was a boilerplate share for anyone hoping to defend Amazon or cast doubt on the Times) helped it go viral—something I’m pretty sure no press release has ever done.

So far it has had more than a million views on LinkedIn, was cross-posted on Medium, and was linked in almost every hot take that has appeared since the initial article.

It’s worth noting that most companies have some sort of clause in employee contracts which specifically bans speaking on behalf of the company unless given permission. Ciubortariu made a disclaimer at the top of his piece that his views were his own, but Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s inclusion of the piece in his internal (and inevitably leaked) memo suggests Amazon was more than willing to co-opt the piece and let it speak for the company.

This all leads to an important question: Could we be seeing a new trend emerging in the way companies do PR? As free publishing platforms like LinkedIn and Medium continue to gain in popularity, the concept of employee written content is more possible than ever—though in crisis situations, the risks could end up trumping the rewards.

A different sort of press release

Part of the genius of Ciubotariu’s treatise-style defense of Amazon is that, unlike a PR representative, he can say whatever he wants, in whatever voice he wants. He makes his bias clear from the get-go, dismissing the Times article by stating, “We’ve got our hands full with reinventing the world.” Whatever Amazon’s selling (besides everything), this guy is certainly buying it.

Though he may be full of Amazonian zeal, he is not representative of the whole company, so he can say what Amazon can’t. He can be defensive. He can be dismissive of charges of sexism. He can contradict himself (“I’m going to use data, and provide you with actual facts,” he writes, followed by primarily anecdotal content). He can be inaccurate. He can position his singular experience as more true than the experiences of more than 100 interviewees. He can accuse high-profile journalists of misconduct.

Brands, on the other hand, can’t do that. Just ask Tinder.

Of course, issues could arise when an employee goes too far; certainly, many read the article only as confirmation of the cult-like atmosphere at Amazon described by the original piece. The top comments on the article confirm that many readers were left unpersuaded by his piece—though the amount of shares and views also suggest that he struck a nerve in voicing some people’s criticisms of the original article.

Despite the backlash, the fact still stand that Ciubotariu was able to say things that Amazon’s PR department never could—which was made all the more interesting when Bezos included the piece in his memo.

“Read this very different take”

When Bezos sent an internal memo to his employees, he made sure to include two pieces: the original Times piece, and Ciubortariu’s response:

Dear Amazonians,

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:

I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:

Ciubortariu’s piece was presented without explicit comment or endorsement, but his positioning of it as a counterpoint suggests that it amounted to something of an official response—or at least what he believes is more representative of the “real Amazon.”

Amazon could have asked him to remove it, and to not attempt to speak for the brand. They did not. And then Bezos directed the world right to it. It’s an intriguing strategy, and one that could have implications for the way companies respond to PR crises going forward. Having a “courageous employee,” as Fortune puts it, respond to negative allegations is a far more powerful—and potentially more viral—method in the age of free publishing platforms and cheap distribution, where any piece has the potential to reach millions of readers.

Of course, this is all assuming that risk-averse companies are willing to assume the potential pitfalls of encouraging employees to speak out. With the proper guidance, it could be done, and be done well—but passionate employees such as Ciubortariu lashing out could end up doing more damage than good.

Image by Sergey Nivens

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