UPDATED 14:42 EDT / APRIL 13 2009

#AmazonFail: Anatomy of a #TwitterWin [PR Post Mortem]

image If Twitter ever needed a watershed moment to once and for all define the importance of Twitter, the AmazonFail fiasco that occurred over Easter weekend was it.

In case you missed it, over the weekend, an author that specializes in gay-themed romance novels, inquired as to why his work wasn’t showing up in the top sales list any longer. He blogged about it, and then it was seized upon over at Twitter, as it was explained to be part of a larger movement at Amazon to remove objectionable sexual content from their top lists.  The Twitter tag #AmazonFail quickly made it to the the top of the trending topics list, where it has remained since.

Over the weekend, the story was picked up by most of the usual suspects in the tech blogging world, but it’s since branched out to the outside media world, showing up in the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, the AP, and perhaps least surprisingly, the Advocate.

The buzz has died down, but as of this writing, there are still hundreds of tweets per minute under the #AmazonFail tag.

What Lessons Can Be Learned from This?
I won’t spend my time here defending Amazon from what I think is most likely an unfortunate glitch – I’ve already written that article once.

What I think may be more interesting, and more broadly applicable, are the lessons to be learned from this.  During my research for this topic, I’ve discovered, as one commenter put it over at Inquisitr, that “the problems with "Amazon are legion.”

This flashpoint event has served as a lightning rod for every disgruntled affiliate partner and customer to air their grievances with the company, and use it all as supporting evidence why this claim of anti-gay bias is probably true.  Amazon, over the course of one weekend, has become “evil.”

The first lesson, then, is to deal with individual problems before the become international incidents. They’re ticking timebombs, and each one of them is now a piece of shrapnel taking out potential customers that were missed by the initial blast, here.

There’s another lesson that can only be learned from a specific example like #AmazonFail, as opposed to the dozens of major PR faux pas we may see on a weekly basis. I described it in some detail over at my personal blog last night.

I put it somewhat bombastically there, but the uptake is that Twitter and social media tools are more ubiquitous and mainstream than ever.  Therefore, if you have a complex problem in a technology product causing potential PR problems, don’t expect the general public to figure out the root cause. These people aren’t tech heads, and the ones who are will be far outnumbered by the people who just see the results, and not how you got there.

Another lesson? Just like we should have all learned from Zappos and Tony Hsieh, customer service is the new PR.  All this arose out of a probably somewhat lackluster experience an author had with Amazon’s customer service department.

The last lesson, and perhaps the most important lesson of #AmazonFail, is that when the course of your PR intersects the topics of sexuality and race, you must leave nothing to the imagination in your communication with the public.

You cannot simply issue a press statement that “this is a glitch.” The public won’t understand that:

It doesn’t matter how far-fetched it realistically is to assume a conspiracy of homophobia at Amazon, it takes critical thinking skills to realize that. Most people, for years, have been conditioned to never engage critical thinking skills when it comes to race and sexuality.  To go against the tide carries more or less the same consequences for most people that it carried for Galileo to suggest we didn’t live in a Geocentric Universe.

To counteract that, the smart PR person will never say these things out loud, they’ll reach out to the most influential technology pundits they can find with an explanation and offer for interview explaining the technical details.

All told, this will probably not end up affecting the bottom line at Amazon too significantly.  Time will heal the wounds on this, I imagine, but it’s going to set them back in terms of reputation. A company as forward thinking as Amazon could have avoided this, but due to a number of missed lessons, did not.

Don’t let it happen to you!

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