Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

A Stumble at the Gate

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Horses at Gate

Jay Carney, former White House press secretary, showed why the transition from government to private business spokesperson isn’t always a smooth one.

Carney was interviewed by CBS This Morning in response to a New York Times article by reporter Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld about “dystopian” working conditions at Amazon. The report talked of employees in tears after meetings or at their desks. And although Kantor spoke about some of the positive aspects of the company, including its innovation, she defended the reports that Amazon’s culture encouraged employees to tear apart each other’s ideas in a effort to create an atmosphere of “unreasonably high” standards.

Carney told the anchor desk that he has held the job of corporate spokesperson at Amazon for five months. But he said neither he, nor Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos or many of the other people with whom he works recognized the company portrayed in Kantor and Streitfeld’s report. That mirrored the language in an Amazon press release but was not a firm enough rebuttal of the allegations for anchors Gayle King and Clarissa Ward.

Carney stumbled often as he defended Amazon’s role and history as an innovator. When Ward and King pressed him on whether the allegations were true, Carney essentially said that employees who didn’t like the culture at Amazon were free to leave, noting that the attrition rate for the company was similar to the attrition rate for other large American companies.

When King specifically addressed a charge in the NYT story that Amazon does not offer maternity leave to its women, Carney admitted that there was no maternity leave but justified that by the fact that 80% of US companies also do not provide it.

When Carney was a White House spokesperson, his responses were crisp because government spokespeople tend to be limited by government officials in what they can say. Saying too little or just enough in press conferences is the rule of the day because it reduces the amount of backtracking or embarrassment if they’re wrong later. As a corporate spokesperson, the crisis communication goal is to try to get ahead of the story and smash as much defense into an answer as possible, no matter the question. Several times, the anchors tried to stop Carney from the all too common corporate defense ramble.

But the message itself was a problem. Parents may recognize Carney’s responses to Amazon’s issues with attrition and maternity leave in conversations they have with their kids. “Everybody else is doing it”, is not a justification for a company that constantly claims to hold itself to a higher standard.

Jay Carney was the 29th White House press secretary. He served in that position from September 2005 until November 2008, and he was a regular contributor in the “roundtable” segment of ABC News’ This Week with George Stephanopoulos. But as this CBS This Morning interview shows, some skills are not as transferable as they seem.

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