amazonfail = PRfail

My favourite quote of the day comes from Amazon de-ranked author Gore Vidal:

“Why don’t they just burn the books? They’d be better off and it’s very visual on television.”

I still can’t quite believe that lovely, liberal Seattle-based Amazon would go in for the sort of virtual book burning we have seen at the weekend – even if they are more like Wal-Mart these days. Despite what at least one author was told, this seems less like deliberate policy, and more like corporate f***wittery on a grand scale. But the outcome and the appearance is the same: de-ranked books, and mass censorship of gay and lesbian literature by ‘Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company.’

This is why we could do with a full statement about what happened. So far it looks like they are backtracking from a policy decision – which may or may not be the case:

11 Apr 09  – Policy

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

12 Apr 09 – Glitch

A “glitch” has occurred in our sales ranking feature that is in the process of being fixed. There is no new policy regarding “adult” titles.

13 Apr 09 – Error

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.

Well, at least they’re fixing it. But it’s not a full explanation of what happened. It doesn’t explain Lady Chatterley going missing in action. It doesn’t explain Craig Seymour being de-ranked in February. And it doesn’t explain the ‘accident’ that caused it.

I really don’t expect a personal reply to my letter to Jeff – he’s a busy man. But a full statement from the Amazon PR department would at least quell the rumours and conspiracy theories. Yesterday, these included a meta-troll theory, a hacker claiming responsibility for causing the mess (he didn’t), and a French translation error.

Given that this firestorm started on Twitter, you might think it would make sense for Amazon to address the issue there – especially since they have their own Twitter account. Jeff Rutherford offers some helpful suggestions on how they might have done this. But the most enlightening tweet we received from Amazon yesterday was:

Amazon Daily: Cooking by Kindlelight http://bit.ly/FHVp9

You can’t find this tweet any more, because, interestingly, their Ministry of Truth appear to have suspended this RSS-generated feed today, and deleted tweets back to April 10th, before the crisis.

Really not the way to win back our trust, Amazon. By trying to maintain control, you overlook the fact that you have already lost control – you may have noticed that we’re already talking about you.

And what started on Twitter has now made the mainstream media. Here’s an item from last night’s Channel 4 News in the UK:

This is not a conspiracy. It’s just bad judgement and disastrous PR management. The most insightful comment I read yesterday was from Patrick at Making Light:

None of which means that anyone shouldn’t be mad at Amazon, or that Amazon shouldn’t be embarrassed. Rather, it means that this is how the world works. A great deal of racism, homophobia, etc., happens not because anyone particularly wants to be racist or homophobic, but because the ground has been tilted that way by arrangements made long ago and if you’re not constantly on the lookout it’s easiest to roll downhill.

Yes, Amazon should have been more aware of the likely repercussions of this, but mistakes happen, things go awry, and people are usually quite forgiving if you own up and put it right (promoting the de-ranked titles on their front page for a few days might do it). Amazon’s apparent disengagement from the problem could be more damaging to them in the long run.

Social media works because it’s about openness, authenticity, and building trust with people. Not because those are attributes of social media itself – but because those are now our values in the wider culture. Social media just provides the tools to tap into that online. It’s telling that Amazon hasn’t really engaged with social media so far, despite being one of the first companies to offer customer ranking and review features.

For a big organization, social media strategy is often simply about listening in to online conversations about your brand, engaging with and influencing those conversations, and responding appropriately. You can do this by typing your brand name into any number of search engines, including http://search.twitter.com. If you discover a social media backlash, you address it.

Amazon may have the technology, but social media is only partly about technology. The culture is far more important. By not responding quickly through the social media channels that raised awareness of the problem in the first place, amazonfail has turned into a PRfail.

About Jon Reed

Jon Reed is a writer, lecturer and social media trainer. He is the author of Get Up to Speed With Online Marketing (2nd edition, Pearson, 2013) and The Publishing Talk Guide to Twitter. He runs the social media consultancy Reed Media, providing training and workshops on social media marketing. He previously worked in publishing for 10 years, including as publishing director for McGraw-Hill. He launched Publishing Talk in 2007. More about Publishing Talk...

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