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What Amazon's Hire of Former Obama Spokesman Says About Its PR Machine

Amazon and Jeff Bezos are not accustomed to being on the negative side of public perception. That has changed recently.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

Jeff Bezos is shaking up the Amazon PR machine.

The company has hired President Obama’s former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney to a new position overseeing both public relations and public policy, the company said on Thursday. Politico’s Mike Allen first reported the news. Carney, who left the administration last year, had preliminary talks with Apple and Uber for similar positions before taking the Amazon job.

The move signals Bezos’s desire to have a stronger presence inside Washington as Amazon becomes more powerful across industries as varied as warehousing, retailing, cloud computing and publishing. New initiatives such as its delivery drones have also seen it pushing the boundaries of regulation. Amazon lobbying chief Paul Misener is staying with the company, but now reporting to Carney.

Carney’s hiring also underscores something insiders have discussed for some time: Bezos has been unhappy with some of the negative storylines around Amazon over the last year and a half. Thanks to his lead White House role, Carney is no stranger to crisis communications.

A few Amazon crises stand out. The book “The Everything Store” by journalist Brad Stone did not turn out the way Bezos and others inside the company would have hoped. Stone told a compelling and fast-paced narrative about the impressive meteoric rise of Amazon. But Bezos was portrayed at times as an unsympathetic bullying boss who commanded an overworked workforce that was often not a fun place to work. Bezos’s wife wrote a notorious one-star review of the book on Amazon shortly after it was published, arguing that Stone couldn’t possibly paint an accurate portrait since he didn’t interview her husband for the book.

Amazon PR chief Craig Berman ran the strategy around the book, where Stone got some access to Amazon execs, but not to Bezos. And it blew up in his face, at least in Amazon’s eyes. Berman is staying at the company and now reports to Carney instead of to Amazon Senior VP Diego Piacentini.

Amazon also didn’t do well in the public eye during its battle with Hachette over e-book prices in a new contract. Through news articles and with the assistance of a vocal group of big-name authors, Hachette helped paint Amazon as the Goliath that was intent on crushing competition at all costs, even if it endangered the livelihoods of authors along the way. The two sides ended up agreeing to a new contract, but the damage was done.

It will be interesting to see if or how Amazon’s relationship with reporters evolves on Carney’s watch. The company’s PR strategy, led by Berman, has largely been silence on most stories not generated by Amazon. The White House had its own issues with press access during Carney’s tenure as its chief spokesman. So I’m crossing my fingers but not holding my breath on sweeping changes.

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