Life at an Amazon fulfillment center can seem more like a sentence than a job, according to reports. The stories have been so terrible that Amazon has decided to fight back with specially deputized worker "ambassadors" who take to Twitter to defend the company and its conditions, as TechCrunch reported last night.

From locking customer accounts for no apparent reason to using Nazi symbols in ads on New York City subways for a TV series, Amazon has a genius for frequently screwing up public relations. This latest campaign of happy workers telling naysayers on Twitter how blessed their existences are rings hollow and could be a textbook case of how not to roll out a social-media blitz.

Clone warriors

Someone on Twitter first noticed the program.

TechCrunch followed up on it, finding a dozen of the accounts, all supposedly belonging to "real" Amazon workers, all using the same template and Amazon smiley logo.

My immediate impression--and I later saw some others used the same metaphor--was that the Stepford Wives took jobs at Amazon and continued to work in lockstep. But to understand how badly this program has been designed, you need context, so it's time for a trip down memory lane.

Ugly stories

For years, Amazon has been the subject of many ugly stories about how unpleasant the working conditions can be there. For example:

  • Fear of being disciplined for not working hard enough.
  • Workers claiming to have been penalized for not showing up, even though they were sick.
  • Some feeling so pressured that they urinated in bottles to avoid taking off time to get to a bathroom.

And that's just recently. Back in 2011, there was an exposé by a small Pennsylvania paper of such working conditions as toiling in temperatures well over 100 degrees without air conditioning.

One temporary worker said her vision got blurry, she had trouble standing, and couldn't concentrate one shift when heat in some parts of the warehouse exceeded 110 degrees. She went to a nurse station in the warehouse because she was feeling dizzy.
Within minutes of her arrival at the nurse station, an ISS manager asked her to sign a paper saying her symptoms were not related to work, she said.
The employee takes medication for hypertension and signing the papers, she said, would allow her to return to work after cooling off.

The "ISS" stood for "Integrity Staffing Solutions," an agency providing help to Amazon. Reportedly, conditions for temps and full-time employees can vary greatly, according to a Huffington Post report from 2013.

A report from a journalist who went undercover in the U.K. in late 2017 was no more cheerful:

I spent five weeks at the firm's newest warehouse in Tilbury, Essex, armed with a secret camera bought from Amazon's own website.
I found staff asleep on their feet, exhausted from toiling for up to 55 hours a week.
Those who could not keep up with the punishing targets faced the sack--and some who buckled under the strain had to be attended to by ambulance crews.
Employees say that things like spending time talking to co-workers, going to get a drink, or even taking too long to find a package are billed as "time off task," too much of which leads to penalty points for an employee. Get enough of those, and you're fired.

And, among other things, more stories of no time for the bathroom.

Or a story from The Street...but you get the picture.

Bring on the happy faces

PR people are often called on to spin stories to keep clients or employers from looking bad. To say the equivalent of "fake news" about a long string of stories over the years doesn't do the job.

But that is how Amazon is trying to manage its reputation now. And it's using people who the company claims to be regular employees who aren't all that good at addressing criticism. (By the way, all emojis are stripped out of the tweets for technical reasons. Messages were otherwise unchanged.)

It certainly sounds as though FC Ambassadors are full-time positions and the people are no longer in a warehouse. (I have questions in with Amazon and will post answers if I get them.)

What makes this such a bad approach is that the entire thing screams fake, even if it isn't. You have people whose new job is to say nice things about the company. By focusing on only their past experiences, Amazon effectively tries to pretend that others might not have faced something much more unpleasant and even dangerous.

Part of the campaign apparently is to tout chances to visit an Amazon fulfillment center. Preferably one with A/C.

Here come the mockers

It's bad enough to try and pretend that any criticism is 180 degrees from reality. That demands a suspension of disbelief and the assumption that every current or former employee who talks about bad conditions is lying. Perhaps the world is always ready for another conspiracy theory.

On top of the inept structure, the approach also begs for people to mock it, including some who have pretended to be with the program. Here are some examples:

Entrepreneurial takeaway

Amazon does many things well. Crisis PR is not one of them. If there are unflattering stories coming out about your operation, do the following:

  1. Examine them and your operation for any truth. If there is any, figure out how to solve the problem.
  2. Work with a crisis communications expert and listen to the advice. You don't know better.
  3. Implement the recommended communications plan, including addressing real problems and proving if charges are utterly false.
  4. Use transparency to work with the media. If they can see that everything is fine, it deflates additional stories and maybe creates some positive earned media.
  5. Do not try to pretend everything is fine. You will only have people mercilessly mocking you on social media.