For those of you unfamiliar with the #amazonfail phenomenon, here it is in a nutshell:

Hundreds of gay-and lesbian-themed books suddenly disappeared from Amazon.com’s rankings over the weekend, causing an uproar among authors and activists who alleged it was a stealthy extension of the company’s policy concerning adult content. The internet bookseller claimed it was the result of a technical “glitch.”

. This incident happened at lightspeed over the Easter weekend – 36 hours from initial post to hitting a blog on the Wall Street Journal, and then today the Technology section of the paper itself (that’s less than 60 hours from consumer complaint to mainstream media story).

There was a time when one might have the luxury of four or five days before a blogstorm hit a mainstream publication with a mainstream audience. No longer.

So, Corporate PR folks: is your organization prepared for the new speed of crisis communications?


Timelines are condensing.

The reason why is Twitter. Unlike a blog post, which realistically would take me anywhere between an hour and an hour and a half to write and research, I can tweet something (with a link to original source material) in about five seconds. To over 4,000 people. Additionally, those people are ambiently consuming the information I have posted in real time, on mobile devices via apps like Tweetie and on their desktop via clients like Tweetdeck. Both of these services are designed for maximum information intake. A very different mode of consumption from from a blog post which I would expect most people to read via a feedreader they check perhaps once a day.

It’s a viral platform.
Replies on Twitter (unless sent by private direct message) are public – they are distributed to a broader network, and the whole conversation is visible to thousands of people who may choose to engage and forward it on to their own networks. When something catches fire, it’s exponentially viral on Twitter – I’m not simply emailing it one to one to my friends, I am literally broadcasting it to hundreds or even thousands of people who have subscribed to my content. If they like the information, they may do the same, and so on, and so on…

Amazon was less than forthcoming initially, but has since released a well-worded mea culpa from Director of Corporate Communications Patty Smith that stated,

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. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

Does it Matter?
Sure, it matters right now, no question – Amazon has suffered a blow to their corporate reputation. There have been over 300 articles about the incident in mainstream publications. Therefore the question of the moment is how well are today’s Corporate Communications departments prepared to deal with this dramatic acceleration in crisis communications timelines (I’d answer not well – someone senior enough to respond would have to be living online 24/7 to have caught this).

But here’s a question for six months from now: if dramatic incidents like this become commonplace because of things like Twitter, will it still matter from a corporate reputation perspective? In other words, if the media doesn’t report on it, making it visible to an audience broader than the estimated six to nine million Twitter users (not all of whom are active or even paying attention), is a Twitterstorm big enough to actually matter?

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14 Comments

  1. Maggie, great topic and interesting long term perspective. Looking at other Twitterstorms like Motrin Moms, my impression is that the reputation may suffer in the Twitter fish bowl, but there isn’t much damage done long term in the “real world”.

  2. Stan Scott

    The world is full of dramatic events every day, and the news media choose which ones are the most newsworthy. Even if there were a Twitter event every day, the media would have no reason to tune them out completely. It will pick out the important ones and then report on the COMPANY involved. So don’t think Twitter will be ignored in the future.

  3. Mark Stuhmer

    Companies that react quickly (e.g., the Tylenol scare, to go back a little in time) will tend to fare better than their sluggish counterparts. So does #AmazonFAIL matter? Sure. We had an event that popped up on the marketplace’s radar and the company reacted fairly quickly.

    Like many other applications, Twitter serves to increase transparency. Twitter will evolve, social media will evolve, society will evolve, but it’s a good guess that the trend toward transparency will continue and, if it does, future #AmazonFAIL-like events will matter too. Companies can’t expect that they can hide in the noise created by increased transparency.

  4. I was on Twitter over the Easter weekend, so saw #amazonfail take off – Amazon first said in email to an author that “the company was excluding “ ‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and best-seller lists.”” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/14/technology/internet/14amazon.html)

    For ‘adult’, read ‘gay & lesbian’ – there were anti-homosexual books still available, along with very adult sex toys, and hetero erotica – funny how the catalogue works, huh?

    Then Amazon changed their tune (perhaps realising it didn’t actually stand up to any serious scrutiny), and blamed a cataloguing error. It’s laughable. I’d take them seriously if they admitted someone had censored their lists of books, and they’d now fired that person/s. Instead, we got dribble – which however well-worded is still corporate spin to control the damage. However, the damage to their reputation is ongoing – #amazonfail is still on Twitter.

    In six months, i think people will still be picking up stories like this from the net – after all – it’s news. Censorship, right wing religious views being forced on the book-buying public, and bigotry – it all works for me.

  5. I love the way information is spread so rapidly. Information at twitter speed. I am new to this twitter and loving it. I am amazed at the information that I have been able to tap into. 4TogetherEveryoneAchievesMoreHelpingOtherPeopleExcel

  6. Will it matter to the company in general? Long term? Probably not, but even if it is just a few thousand people talking about a serious error or questionable policy, it’s worth addressing as soon as possible. In this world in 2009, people expect everyone to be available within hours tops. I do monitor my company’s reputation even on weekends and evenings. If I were part of the Amazon team, I’d want to sort it out and clarify within just hours, rather than days. We saw it with Motrin Moms and we’ll see it with AmazonFail too… people are forgiving once they understand what happened or they get a genuine apology. People screw up. And it’s kind of nice that social media may just be the thing that draws integrity out of people and companies whether they like it or not.

  7. maggiefox Author

    @sheila without question, if the intent was purposeful the whole thing matters from a right/wrong perspective, I’m with you there. However, I wanted to take the 30,000-foot view and assess whether the impact Twitter can have on brand reputation today will still be the case in six months after another dozen of these type of incidents.

  8. The other side of velocity is that these issues evaporate as quickly as they boil up. Maybe even faster.

  9. Maggie Fox Author

    @peter, exactly my point – when there’s no broader spread to the mainstream, will these tempests in tea pots eventually come and go without impact?

  10. armpit44

    Amazon sells dog fighting publications, so I wouldn’t do biz with them. I say #Amazonfail forever!

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