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New York, New York: Amazon Couldn’t Carry A Tune

By February 28, 2019 No Comments

By Pen Pendleton for Morning Consult, February 20, 2018

Maybe Amazon should have asked Alexa to sell the company’s new headquarters plan to New Yorkers.

After all, the world’s largest company built their new voice-assisted device to be helpful, friendly, informed and trustworthy. Just the persuasive qualities that seemed missing from Amazon’s dry public relations messages to New Yorkers.

Not that Amazon lacks communications savvy. Seattle knew its headquarters initiative had PR potential from the outset. Management incorporated a publicity campaign into its nation-wide roll-out. Like David O. Selznick auditioning every small town actress for Scarlett O’Hara, Jeff Bezos and crew mounted a tour of local infrastructure and tax breaks across the country. For months thereafter, they captured headlines and the hearts of state politicians.

The plan worked to perfection. With the selection of Crystal City, even the Washington elite fell in love. Jay Carney, Amazon’s head of communications, who put down roots in the nation’s capital as a communications director for President Obama, probably turned his attention to other issues thereafter.

He shouldn’t have. As headlines in the City tabloids went from bad to bitter, Amazon’s PR soured. Arriving in Queens, the company seemed to lose its way. It was surrounded by a culture steeped in labor union lore, but was tongue-tied when asked to support a union workforce. It expressed discomfort when faced with the sharp elbows and contact sport of New York State politics. It even fumbled its greatest advantage; the unheard-of de Blasio/Cuomo alliance.

How could team Bezos have made such a grand miscalculation on so public stage? Where was the data that segmented the marketplace and mapped public opinion? For a campaign that needed star power, why were two old white men the designated influencers?

It seems reasonable to speculate that Amazon had other priorities and realized the cost of capital on Long Island City was just too high. With Wall Street right across the East River, its options were pricing out of the money. The really smart money knew that in a downturn, Amazon’s brand value was no match for New York’s. Capital from these investors had been pouring into I Love NY long before Bezos even thought about a corporate logo.

Jeff Bezos must credit much of his success to trusting the numbers, but it’s harder to tell if he trusts people. Anyone in the communications business could have told him that numbers don’t tell the whole story. It takes more than numbers to be persuasive.

Carney should have taken his boss on a subway ride some weekday afternoon out to LIC. Bezos might have learned something by walking into a bodega or visiting a daycare center as mothers rushed in to pick up the kids. If he’d have listened, he would have heard how people talk about their neighborhood and their city. He would have heard pride, as well as fury.

On the other hand, Bezos and Carney and the other decision-makers had heard Queens and were genuinely sorry that things didn’t work out. In his farewell statement, Carney conveyed all due respect to the City. “We love New York, its incomparable dynamism, people, and culture — and particularly the community of Long Island City, where we have gotten to know so many optimistic, forward-leaning community leaders, small business owners, and residents.”

Unfortunately, as Jay would certainly have advised his bosses, the timing was way off. More than words, communications needs a narrative, and a narrative needs time to evolve – like a relationship. Ironically, Carney undermined Amazon’s farewell sentiment by blaming state and local politicians for failing to “…work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project…”

When it came to building relationships, that missing link in Amazon’s program, the PR never clicked.