Amazon Drones: Bezos’ Folly or Smart PR?

 Amazon Drones: Bezos Folly or Smart PR?

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Distinctly OK) for Amazon.

Last week, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos gave CBS news program 60 Minutes access to the world’s supply store, boasting that some day, “Anything you want on Earth, you’re going to get from us.” He showed how he envisions customers will get things, too, unveiling his grand plan for delivery: drones.

Yes, Amazon plans to use small flying machines programmed to deliver that must-have item to your door. Bezos’ calm delivery and demonstration of a drone model indicated that this wasn’t a joke, though it seems to have been taken as such.

The problems with drone delivery, including entanglement in trees and phone wires and the drones’ limited weight capacity made the idea ripe for humor. One meme shows men shooting rifles with the caption, “What’re you boys doing? Hunting for Christmas presents.” A fake Amazon delivery attempt notice reads, “Your package has been destroyed along with the drone after it strayed into restricted airspace.” Amazon got an infomercial on a news program by allowing unveiling a surprise that may have made been the butt of jokes but also got people talking.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Amazon.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Cultivate mystique and draw back the curtains – briefly. Amazon’s operations and Bezos’ strategies were recently revealed, in a not entirely pleasing light, in a book called The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. Two ways to deal with negative publicity: fight it, or distract from it. In this case, Bezos unveiled a pie-in-the-sky idea, complete with cute flying prototype. Insane or inspired? It hardly matters; whether people are joking about it or hoping for it, a week later they’re still talking about Amazon.

Tech King Quietly Acquires Washington Post

bezos Tech King Quietly Acquires Washington Post

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

That massive thud on Monday was the sound of jaws dropping at the news that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, one of the most venerated newspapers in the US, from the Graham family, which owned it for 80 years. The pricetag of $250 million is almost pocket change to Bezos, representing about one percent of his estimated $25 billion personal fortune. Perhaps that’s why some conjectured that Bezos, who pours millions into pet projects like spaceflight and a clock that will run for 10,000 years, made the purchase for the fun of it.

Media and business pundits will no doubt continue to try to explain, praise, or pan the acquisition. As one observer noted, Bezos and the Graham family eschewed the theatrics that often accompany major announcements where tech sector luminaries are involved. News of the sale went public quietly, initially in a hushed Post staff meeting and with a letter from Bezos posted on the WaPo website.

Well played all around. The understated announcement evinced the Graham family’s sensitivity to the interests and sentiments of gobsmacked Post employees (not to mention investors in the soon-to-be-private media property). For Bezos, whose retail empire began with antiquating the book industry, and who last year predicted the death of print inside 20 years, a more visible PDA – Public Display of Acquisition – might be a tad unseemly.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for the Graham family and Jeff Bezos of Amazon, for standing back and letting the most significant media acquisition of the year speak for itself.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: When the news you have shouts on its own, tell it in a whisper. Two other major media transactions – the sales of Newsweek and the Boston Globe – occurred at virtually the same time as the Post sale, but does anyone remember? The Post transaction leaves open a lot of questions, stirs emotions, will have far-ranging impact, both in media and tech. By keeping things understated and matter-of-fact, both sides were well served in presenting a “business-as-usual” front on a transaction that is anything but.

J.C. Penney: Everything Old is New Again

 J.C. Penney: Everything Old is New Again

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for the board of J.C. Penney.
(Pictured: ousted CEO Ron Johnson.)

Shareholders may be asking the board of J.C. Penney “Penny for your thoughts?” Or perhaps demanding it, after the startling news of a CEO switcheroo this past Monday. That CEO Ron Johnson was ousted is not a surprise. The real surprise came when the board announced Johnson’s replacement: his predecessor, Myron Ullman, who was fired by that same board in 2011.

When Johnson arrived he moved forward with a radical makeover for Penney: boutique stores under one roof. This idea included securing Martha Stewart, who assured Johnson she could step out of her exclusive contract with Macy’s. That plan blew up like a bad soufflé, with Johnson in court admitting he’d never read the fine print of Stewart’s contract with Macy’s, and thousands of Martha’s products being court-barred from shelves.

Now comes news that Johnson is being replaced by the very predecessor he took over from, ostensibly because the man wasn’t doing a bang-up job to begin with. JCP’s price tumbled 10.3 percent after a brief spike when Johnson’s termination was announced. Shareholders aren’t just calling for a replacement for him, but for the entire board. This is practically a textbook example of PR “dont’s.”

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for the board of J.C. Penney.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: When playing poker, keep your hand facing in – no need to show all cards to the other players. A new CEO, a drastic new plan; where were the checkpoints along the way? With only one of the ten J.C. Penney board members having retail experience, no wonder the organization is in trouble. The board clearly realized that it needed to oust Johnson to stem the falling revenues and bad publicity, but the answer is rarely to go back in time. As Plan B is nothing more than a return to former issues, then it may be worth delaying until a more palatable alternative is found. If the board insists on reuniting with a former CEO, then coach the ill-chosen replacement not to admit that he was re-hired only last weekend and has no plan to speak of. Showing the losing hand is always a losing tactic and in this case, likely to cost JCP a pretty penny.