Amazon’s Fail: Not Using Social Media to React to #AmazonFail Meme

    by Mark Hannah
    April 14, 2009

    In what some initially speculated to be a homophobic new expurgation policy, Amazon.com removed hundreds of gay and lesbian themed books from its sales rating system, effectively concealing these books from online shoppers. Some titles were completely delisted from Amazon’s search engine. The controversy may never have provoked such widespread media attention — or an official company response — if the story hadn’t contagiously spread around the Twittersphere under the hashtag, #amazonfail.

    As it turns out, the removal was a result of a mere programming error. Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener explained in a statement:

    Amazon is to a large extent a social media company. Why then was its response to this controversy somewhat anti-social?"

    “This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection. It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles — in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally.”

    The statement is thoughtful and well-crafted but lacked both punctuality and contrition. Sam Machkovech at Slog observes, “[Amazon’s] proper, human response was run through the corporate PR wringer for a full day before finally landing.” And Kate Harding over at Salon.com notes, “It’s still not a real apology to all the authors and publishers affected, or the customers who had pretty good reason to wonder if Amazon had indeed instated a homophobic and misogynistic corporate policy.”


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    Sam Machkovech

    Walking the Walk of Social Media

    Now, I know what you’re thinking. Did Amazon really deserve the uproarious reaction? Were they the victim or the crime in all of this? The Seattle-based company has a track record of progressive corporate values and the problem was, after all, technical and accidental.

    In a conversational medium, it doesn’t just matter whether you can walk the walk — you need to be able to talk the talk as well. With its reader reviews and customer rankings, Amazon is to a large extent a social media company. Why then was its response to this controversy somewhat anti-social?


    By waiting so long to issue a statement, the company didn’t just allow rumors that the company was discriminatory to circulate, it also allowed a well-known hacker to claim that the ordeal was caused by an organized prank for which he was responsible. Keeping with the maxim that “a lie will go half-way around the world while the truth is putting its boots on,” several highly influential blogs (including one on Wired) gave traction to the hacker’s false claims.

    To be fair, this all unfolded on Easter Sunday. But while 20 Amazon employees were paged, and their attention brought to the #amazonfail meme on Twitter (by the way, more tweets contained this hashtag on Sunday than mentioned “Easter” or “Jesus”), the statement wasn’t sent to reporters until Monday afternoon.

    Even if the timing of Amazon’s statement can be forgiven, the decision to issue a statement to the Associated Press was odd. After all, the AP was not the victim here. Why not write directly to the LGBT customers it offended (albeit unintentionally) or the authors whose book sales were affected? Amazon has plenty of channels through which it could have done this. It could’ve updated one of its blogs or, of all things, its Twitter feed. I guarantee that the AP and other media outlets would have covered the mea culpa either way.

    I often counsel clients on the value of the Internet to bypass traditional media channels and communicated directly with customers (and other stakeholders). In this case, Amazon seems to have bypassed the concerned customers who were questioning its policies and taken its “glitch” message to the traditional media. There’s a reason that media relations is only a small subset of public relations — in this case it wasn’t the right tool to reach for. Tech consultant Deanna Zandt summed up the lessons for Amazon on how not to handle a social media rampage.

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    Will Jeff Bezos respond?

    Since Amazon issued its statement, a new hashtag has emerged: #sorryamazon. But the majority of tweets still contain the #amazonfail tag (and some are tracking along at #glitchmyass). Most folks it seems are in the mood for getting — not giving — an apology. As Twitterer MackStone writes, “I’m seeing ‘we glitched’. That’s not the same as ‘we’re sorry.’ Apology notable by its absence.”

    One of the great ironies here has gone largely unnoticed: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos believes in Twitter so much that he’s one of its major funders. It will be interesting to see whether he directs his company to issue the apology that Twitter users are pining for. In the vast Amazon that is the Twittersphere, the natives are getting restless.

    Editor’s Note: Be sure to vote in our poll about #AmazonFail and have your say!

    Mark Hannah has spent the past several years conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He specializes in issues and reputation management online. Before joining the PR agency world (v-Fluence Interactive and Edelman), Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently conducted advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, and he serves as an awards judge for both organizations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he’s currently pursuing a master’s in strategic communications at Columbia University. He is an independent communications consultant based in New York City and the public relations correspondent for MediaShift. You can reach him at markphannah[at]gmail[dot]com.

    Photo of Jeff Bezos by Mathieu Thouvenin via Flickr.

    Tagged: #amazonfail amazon jeff bezos public relations social media twitter
    • Whether you think that Amazon.com did right by their action or not, I feel they need to verbally take a stand for what they did.

      Being a “progressively moral” company is something hard to find in this world. I would like something saying, this is what we did and here is why. . .

    • This smacks far too much of a storm in a teacup, or a blogger scratching desperately for a story. Amazon made a mistake (it happens), they put out a statement about it saying what went wrong and that it was fixed. The problem occurred for a short period of time, over a holiday weekend.

      I doubt anyone is significantly out of pocket apart from perhaps Amazon. This story shows more that Twitter users can quickly repeat ‘bad’ news rather than Amazon is a bad company. Time to get over yourself/ves.

    • Myra

      A company that will so easily ignore a PR issue like this one, and then play it as though it were no big deal is a bad company. And doesn’t deserve my business.

      Amazon needs to man up and admit they made a mistake and apologize for it. A simple, sincere apology on Monday morning would have been terrific damage control. But, their arrogance is going to bite them in the bottom line.

    • If this situation shows anything, it is the danger of social media. A growing number of twitterers, feeding on their own guesses and ignorance, encourages by a number of bloggers with no responsibility to truth or standards.

      For those outside of the tempest, they might know only that Amazon had a glitch. When the glitch was noticed, Amazon worked to correct and issued a release admitting that they made an error and that they would fix the issue ASAP.

      For most people, they would think that made Amazon an exemplary company.

      For those that feed on their own bile and perceived injuries, that is not enough.

      It will be interesting to see whether Amazon took any sales hit from this at all. I doubt it.

    • ehsanul

      Wow, talk about making a big deal about nothing. I understand the outrage when people thought Amazon had done this on purpose, but after they’ve read the statement, why do they still feed like they need an apology? Problems happen when you have to keep track of such a huge cluster of servers. It was solved pretty quickly too. Why is anyone still pissed at Amazon?

    • This issue only became a major problem because of irresponsible and conspiracy theory-driven bloggers, Twitterers and some mainstream media took a “Ready-Fire-Aim” approach when responding to it.

      We are all too quick to claim our “right” to freedom of speech but somewhat slow when it comes to using that right responsibly.

      Moreover, big companies do not spend their time and effort hatching super-secret plans to do evil to their customers or society as a whole.

      I think we should all take head of Hanlon’s Razor which says: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity” because most of the times companies just make a mistake.

    • Rebekah

      Those who are dismissing this as “just a glitch” as Amazon reported should read this article:

      While an actual apology for unintended consequences would go a long way, the evidence presented in this article leads me to believe that Amazon is more sorry that they were caught.

    • Chris Clark

      Mark, very impressive post.



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