‘You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?’ These are the words of the nominee for the ‘most tone-deaf tweet of the year’ spoken by no one other than the world’s biggest online retailer, Amazon. But should you really ask a question you do not want to know the answer to? Shortly after this tweet, comments with pictures of bottles full of urine in the back of Amazon vans were published and retweeted over thousands of times, which naturally caught the American media’s attention. Even across the pond The Guardian picked up on it and released its headline: “Amazon’s denial of workers urinating in bottles puts the pee in PR fiasco”.

This PR-debacle has made it impossible to miss these rumours about Amazon-workers’ tight schedules which sometimes force them to urinate in plastic bottles.

The company should have known that ridiculing the issue in an effort to bury this rumour would completely fail and backfire. But where did it all go wrong?

  • The tone of the message: people do not feel empathy or sorry for Amazon, so the retailer’s attempt at playing the pity card simply does not work.
  • The content of the message: companies with a good reputation benefit from a buffer or airbag which protects them from these faux pas. Yet, Amazon is the company ‘we love to hate’: we all use it, but its reputation is rocky. When they ask us to believe them (i.e. that they are not responsible for their employees being forced to urinate in bottle due to time constraints), we simply choose not to believe them.
  • The forum of the message: sensitive (social) issues are not to be discussed publicly especially not on social media and doing so will only further provoke your opponent.

So how should you do it? Here are some golden tips on how to mitigate a crisis or issue like this one:

  • Do not argue or debate online. Start from the inside and communicate first with your employees, before communicating anything externally (forum).
  • Be honest and sincere (content).
  • Be genuine and show empathy, especially when you are dealing with people. Using humor as illustrated here by Amazon, is usually inappropriate. The only exception to this rule is when you expose your company to apologise for your mistake. KFC’s rearranging of its letters spelling out ‘FCK’ to apologise for the chicken shortages after switching distributor or more recently, IKEA saying “We ballsed up” in response to the long queues at their customer service are good examples of this. Yet venturing into self-mockery is only advisable for companies with a robust reputation.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse than this, Amazon’s apology in which it admits that there is an actual issue, tops it all off.

Here is where Amazon goes wrong again:

Firstly, it tries to underplay its blunder by stating that the tweet was incorrect as “It did not contemplate our large driver population and instead wrongly focused only on our fulfilment centres”, which is not exactly the most sympathetic message for the company’s numerous couriers.

Secondly, Amazon did not direct its apology to its staff, but rather to Democratic congressman Mark Pocan, who was outraged about Amazon’s first sarcastic tweet. Pocan quickly responded that this issue does not really concern him, but Amazon’s workers. And that’s how the PR-debacle saga continues.

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