Donald Trump is the most powerful person in the world, and he has a loud megaphone. One word or tweet from him can move markets, or galvanize rage against a person or institution. Yet Amazon.com Inc. stayed quiet when the U.S. president said the company crushes small businesses, may be violating anti-monopoly laws, dodges taxes and takes advantage of the U.S. Postal Service.
On Wednesday, though, Amazon did have something to say about criticisms from Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator from the minority party and erstwhile presidential candidate. The combative response shows where the e-commerce giant is vulnerable to public or political sentiment swinging against it.
Sanders has been saying for months that Amazon pays its warehouse workers too little and treats them poorly. Apparently relying on reporting based on a few U.S. states, Sanders has said too many workers in Amazon warehouses rely on the federal government’s nutrition assistance program, colloquially known as food stamps. (Disclosure: One of my relatives works for a labor organization that advocates for higher worker wages.)
In recent days, Sanders asked for Amazon’s warehouse workers to send him horror stories about their jobs, and said he was planning to introduce legislation that would require large employers to cover the cost of government assistance received by their employees.
Amazon has at times responded relatively meekly to Sanders’s broadsides, but that changed on Wednesday. In a blog post, the company said Sanders “continues to make inaccurate and misleading accusations,” and it repeated its defenses of employee wages, benefits and working conditions. The post also included a message that Dave Clark, the executive who leads Amazon’s logistics operations, sent to Amazon managers to “encourage associates to tell Senator Sanders their truth.”
It’s not clear why Amazon has become more aggressive now, in contrast to the company’s relative silence during Trump’s tirades. Amazon has been fighting for years the idea that its warehouses are brutal places to work, and it may be that the company believes those critiques are more unfair than other attacks on its business. Or it may be that Amazon believes Sanders’s themes have a chance to turn shoppers against the company, or expose Amazon to legislation that would damage its business.
Amazon’s response underscores how tough it is for technology companies to navigate political waters right now. Companies experienced in touting the world-saving features of their products now have to explain their roles in election manipulation, ethnically motivated violence, labor market disruption, degrading the environment or harming mental health. It’s quite a policy challenge. And the typical political lines are blurry. In recent attacks on the industry, it has been hard to tell the difference between conservatives and liberals.
Amazon generally has expanded its public relations and lobbying in Washington, following other tech giants by applying the policy-molding methods familiar to other industries. It’s common for companies to employ multiple tactics to shape their reputation, but the seams are starting to show in Amazon’s PR initiatives far from the Beltway. According to the Seattle Times, Amazon recently enlisted more than a dozen warehouse workers to respond on Twitter to critics of the company’s working conditions.
Efforts to burnish the company’s reputation become more high stakes as the company approaches a $1 trillion stock market value, which will further cement CEO Jeff Bezos’s hold as the world’s richest person. Sanders hit a nerve at Amazon less because of the messenger than about his message.
A version of this column originally appeared in Bloomberg’s Fully Charged technology newsletter. You can sign up here.
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Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
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