Amazon hasn't officially launched its podcasting service yet, and it's already a public relations disaster. The company reached out to respected media figures and podcasters with an invitation to submit their podcasts and a contract that required them to muzzle any criticism of Amazon in their content. It blithely instructed them to keep the matter confidential even though it was a mass email and none of the recipients had agreed to confidentiality.
Not surprisingly, many recipients of the email shared it publicly and called Amazon out for its overreaching demands. Some declared that they would never sign such a document and so their podcasts would not be available on Amazon. The company was forced to back down, and it has quietly removed the offending clause from its contract.
That change may well have saved the launch of Amazon's podcast services, but the original agreement is yet another reason for both podcasters and regulators to ponder whether Amazon has grown too powerful and anti-competitive. It's a misstep the company could easily have avoided if it had considered the lesson of its botched search for a second headquarters city, known as HQ2, another effort laid low by the company's arrogance and overreach. It's a lesson every business leader should learn even if Amazon hasn't. Superior size and financing may give you the power to push other people around -- but you still shouldn't do it.
The upcoming launch of podcasts on the Amazon Music and Audible platforms should have been a huge win. It was sure to appeal to podcasters and media outlets because of the market penetration of Amazon Echo devices that make listening to both music and podcasts extremely convenient for many consumers. A report earlier this year estimated that there are 157 million Echo devices in American homes, which is pretty amazing when you consider that the Census Bureau said last year that there were fewer than 140 million households in the nation. If the launch had been handled better, podcasters would have lined up to sign on.
Instead, Amazon seemed to be using a playbook called How to Make Enemies While Launching a New Service. Here's what the company has done so far.
1. Amazon sent out a mass email but told recipients to keep it confidential.
As most third graders know, if you want to tell someone a secret, you get them to promise not to tell anyone else before you say what the secret is, not after. But rather than obtain a commitment up front that people wouldn't share this information, Amazon simply added "Please note that this information is confidential," after announcing the new podcasting platform in its email. Consider the tone of that sentence, which sounds like an instruction to an underling. A less sure-of-its-own-dominance company would have written something like, "We request that you keep this information confidential for now." (You can read the entire email at The Desk, which first broke the story.)
Recipients pointed out that you can't impose confidentiality on someone who hasn't agreed to it, so they felt no qualms about sharing the contents of the email. And since many of the recipients were news organizations and the new podcast program is news, they published stories about it. You'd think Amazon would have seen that coming.
2. Amazon felt entitled to control what podcasters say.
Or at least what they say about Amazon. The email came with a link to an agreement podcasters had to sign if they wanted to submit their podcasts to the platform. That agreement contained the boilerplate you'd expect about how the podcast must not promote violence, pornography, hate speech, or illegal activity. But it also specified that the podcast "may not include advertising or messages that disparage or are directed against Amazon or any Service."
That clause was a dealbreaker for many of the media outlets and podcasters who received the email. Corey Quinn, who hosts two popular and irreverent podcasts about Amazon's AWS cloud service, tweeted, "I'm a freaking entertainment podcast and I can't consent to that. How can any actual news podcast?!"
Indeed, many publicly said they would not consent to it. GeekWire, a Seattle-based news site that covers the tech and startup scene, received the "confidential" podcast offer, editor Todd Bishop reported in a piece on the site. "We have not submitted our weekly GeekWire Podcast for inclusion, or agreed to the license terms, and we did not agree to treat the information in the email confidentially before receiving it," he wrote.
Faced with growing backlash against a service it hadn't even officially announced yet, Amazon did the most sensible thing it could do. It quietly removed the offending clause from its contract. It's made no public statements about the contract, and the company has not responded to requests for comment from Inc.com. Then again, the whole podcast service is supposedly a secret.
Whatever happens now, Amazon has once again shown itself to be a domineering behemoth accustomed to making others do its bidding. With the company already facing accusations of anti-competitive behavior, that's just not a good look.