Aaron Kwittken: Is Bezos a badass PR machine?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock – and I don’t blame you for hiding from the current state of global affairs – then the name Jeff Bezos will mean a thing or two to you.

He’s been called many names over the years. Genius is one of them. And while the genius label could stick for many of his achievements, Bezos’ brilliant media maneuvering of late – both personal and professional – deserves kudos. In fact, I’d like to go a step further and call him a badass PR machine.

It’s fair to say that Bezos (and Amazon) has been subject to heavy criticism. As with most businesses that scale, Amazon’s difficult work environment and company culture have come under heavy scrutiny.

What’s surprising and perhaps has created a mystery and larger-than-life image of the man, is that he’s maintained tight control over his private and public image over the years – that is, until recently. Bezos rarely appears in interviews or publicly speaks or engages on Twitter.

When blackmailed, a-hem…extorted, the standard protocol is to work with law enforcement, possibly comply with the request and avoid facing the possible consequences. Rather than capitulate, Bezos took a bold and surprising move by bravely publishing a blog on Medium detailing the threat, unafraid of the ensuing personal cost and embarrassment. He could have used his own paper, The Washington Post, but he chose a personal channel to deal with a personal issue. In effect, he scooped the scoop (very meta) by telling his side of the story first. You can judge his indiscretions all you want, but this counterinsurgent PR move was genius and badass.

In just one post Bezos went from mysterious miscreant to reluctant victim. Bezos encouraged readers and media alike to get behind and support him as the underdog, with the main reason being, he writes: "If in my position I can't stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”

We could spend all day deconstructing the intent, but what is important to note here is that Bezos showed that he remains in complete control of his narrative. And while this particular issue was a first for him (as far as we know), it’s not the first time he’s played a game that others aren’t prepared to play.

And to be clear, Bezos’ personal “issues” are hardly issues at all in this #metoo era when compared to the likes of real lowlifes such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Michael Jackson. I could list more, but I have a word limit.

Bezos’ name should be synonymous with bravery. He’s a guy that built his entire career by challenging the old way of doing things.

As Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway's chairman and CEO put it in a recent interview with CNBC's Squawk Box: “[Bezos has] shown amazing talent in figuring out how to please customers in a very short time. He's taken things you and I've been buying and he's figured out a way to make us happier buying those products, either by fast delivery or prices or whatever it may be, and that's remarkable.”

What’s more, Bezos has figured out how to steer the giant Amazon ship through rough waters and develop positive storylines demonstrating that the company cares about people and community, despite being one of the largest brands and employers in the world.

When deciding where to launch its next headquarters, instead of announcing the final decision, Amazon made a public announcement that it narrowed a list of 238 potential cities to 20, with the next stage to identify one city that could be the perfect fit. This approach alone created demand and constructed a narrative for the announcement of the company’s headquarters, and in doing so generated an unheard-of level of attention and anticipation for more news.

The announcement of Long Island City, New York as the next headquarters went as fast as it came, with an equal amount of media conversation and coverage – some for the better, some for the worse. But the communication from Amazon was controlled and demonstrated that Bezos is OK with taking a course of action that he felt was right for the company, and I think that wins him and Amazon a certain level of respect.

This leaves us with the question, is Bezos a badass PR machine? You bet.

Bezos is arguably a great leader and one of the smartest businesspeople alive. To navigate this media landscape and take down pieces from the likes of Amy Chozik at The New York Times, it required addressing his personal shortcomings head on and being humble enough to acknowledge them in his own words. He did just that.

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