It may have started out as an online bookseller, but Amazon acts more like an overly zealous librarian with its insistence on silence. And it’s far from the only tech giant with a reputation for remaining tight-lipped. We ask why, but to be honest we’re not expecting much of a response.
Such paranoia will be familiar to anyone who’s either worked in PR for a technology company or has dealt with one up close as a journalist. One reporter, speaking anonymously, described Amazon to The Drum as “one of the most painful companies to deal with PR-wise”.
In the interests of fairness, two things should be made clear: the first is that accusations of secrecy shouldn’t only be leveled at Amazon. Second is that some disagree with this characterization altogether.
Holly Brockwell, editor of tech site Gadgette, says she has always found Amazon to be “mega helpful”. “It has proactively reached out to me several times based on articles I’ve written or tweets it has seen, which some of the other Silicon Valley companies do but others don’t,” she explains.
But she concedes that those probing the company on its business practices might not find it so accommodating. Even those who’ve been within Amazon’s inner sanctum admit that the company is loath to divulge any more than it really must to the press. Board member Tom Alberg revealed as much in an interview last year, when he admitted the company has a wariness of giving away trade secrets. “You disclose everything you have to, but there’s always this sort of area, well, ‘What’s the cost of a customer? And how many customers do you have, and how fast is books growing versus video?’ And Amazon’s always felt that that’s proprietary.”
A degree of privacy is understandable for a retail trailblazer battling myriad competitors. But The Drum has even found innocuous rebuffed with polite but to-the-point knockbacks. In fact, it is notable how common this trait of cautious communication appears to be to most of the major startups that have blossomed in the past decade.
“The [Silicon Valley] reputation for being secretive is justified,” says Justin Westcott, managing director of PR giant Edelman’s technology practice in London. “Why have these companies been so secretive? I think it’s partly because they’ve been allowed to be.”
To begin with, Westcott contends, we hailed the tech companies as darlings of modern business. “Our lives got better,” he says. As we got to know them, we started to ask questions about them. How does Facebook decide what surfaces in my news feed? How much can Alexa hear? Who is my Uber driver?
The paradox is that these companies are themselves in control of some of the most powerful instruments of communication in the world. As such, the leaders of these companies can communicate on their own terms. “[Media relations] probably has less of a role because the media is less powerful than it was and more polarized,” says Mark Lowe, founder of communications agency Third City.
Ultimately, though, communications can only go so far toward changing public perception. “There’s this idea that if you communicate in the right way it will solve all your problems,” says Lowe. “But anything you say has to be backed up by action. I would argue that there’s probably an increasing disconnect between what they’re saying and what people think they’re doing.”
So, with the phrase “actions speak louder than words” ringing in our ears, we asked Amazon to respond to the contention that the company takes a secretive approach to communication.
To read the rest of the article and find out whether ot not Amazon ever responded, pick up the April issue of The Drum magazine which, for the first time ever, is devoted to a single company. In it we explore why Amazon is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition to advertisers, and look at the increasing threat it poses to legacy brands operating in the spaces it might target next.