In November 2013 I wrote a commentary for a marketing publication warning about lawyers sullying the brands of the companies they represented. The article proved quite prescient as one of the companies I cited was Wells Fargo, whose legal antics defending a predatory lending lawsuit so outraged a judge he demanded that the company’s board pass a resolution affirming directors supported the strategy. Wells’s outrageous legal behavior was a harbinger of the biggest banking scandal of modern times.
Equifax’s lawyers subsequently provided more fodder for my argument about the potential toxicity of lawyers to a company’s brand. In response to a lawsuit relating to hackers obtaining social security numbers and other personal data, Equifax’s lawyers argued that consumers ultimately weren’t harmed by the security breach. The claim found its way to Rep. Katie Porter, who used it to eviscerate Equifax CEO Mark Begor at a Congressional hearing. You owe it to yourself to watch Porter’s performance if you’ve never seen it.
Until now, the legions of lawyers who’ve damaged their company’s brands have all managed to remain publicly faceless. But thanks to a leaked memo, we now know the identity of one. So, without further ado, allow me to introduce you to David Zapolsky, Amazon’s General Counsel and Secretary.
Notes from an internal meeting of Amazon’s leadership that CEO and founder Jeff Bezos attended revealed that Zapolsky hatched a plan to discredit activist warehouse supervisor Christian Smalls, calling him “not smart or articulate” and wanting to make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” Bezos’s Washington Post confirmed the authenticity of the memo.
“He’s not smart or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” Zapolsky wrote in notes that Vice said were “forwarded widely” within the company.
Amazon fired Smalls this week claiming he ignored a request to stay home after coming into contact with a worker who tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Smalls said he was fired because of his outspokenness about unsafe conditions at the Staten Island Amazon warehouse where he worked. Smalls said the employee he was in contact with was visibly quite ill for days but was required to keep working until a confirmed coronavirus diagnosis was made and HR received the requisite paperwork. Smalls also claimed that he was instructed not to tell employees when the warehouse had its first worker testing positive for the coronavirus.
Hours after Smalls’s firing, New York Attorney General Letitia James called the termination “disgraceful” and asked the National Labor Relations Board to investigate. Senator Bernie Sanders was critical of the move and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called it “classist” and “racist.” Zablonsky said his “personal and emotional” comments were driven out of concern for the safety of Amazon employees and denied knowing Smalls’s race.
It’s not clear why Zapolsky was dictating Amazon’s PR strategy, as reports have suggested Jay Carney, the online retailer’s chief flack and former Obama spokesman, was also in attendance. If Carney was indeed at the meeting, he’s either incompetent or a corporate eunuch.
Any crisis expert worth their salt knows that a major corporation can’t be perceived as using its might to trash or obliterate an employee, particularly one not earning a living wage. It doesn’t matter whether the employee is entirely in the wrong – the imbalance of power has bad optics. A competent HR person would also oppose the move, as employees could perceive the attack as management vindictiveness, particularly if the allegations against the employee aren’t entirely true.
I watched a a podcast interview with Smalls and Zapolsky’s recommended PR strategy does smack of elitism and racism. Listening to Smalls I wouldn’t guess that he holds a law degree from UC Berkeley and a music degree from Columbia as does Zapolsky, which is understandable given that Amazon only requires a high school diploma to work in its warehouses. Smalls strikes me as pretty savvy and he talked credibly about the multiple regulatory agencies he reached out to before trying to organize a walkout. Among his disturbing claims is that illnesses at the Staten Island warehouse began after managers returned from a training meeting in Seattle where the coronavirus was already widespread.
It’s a wonder that Zapolsky didn’t know that Smalls was a minority given his PR strategy was predicated on a judgment about Smalls’s diction. Nationally, 24 percent of Amazon’s warehouse workers are black and 12 percent are Hispanic, but my guess is the percentage of minority workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse is even higher.
Zapolsky also discussed “different and bold” ways of giving away surplus masks to hospitals and independent grocers. “If we can get masks in quantity it’s a fantastic gift if we donate strategically,” Zapolsky wrote.
Compare Zapolsky’s mindset to that of Home Depot co-founder and then director Ken Langone, who after 9/11 ordered the company to ship all available supplies from its stores across the U.S. to Ground Zero rescue workers without charge. Langone’s effort was heart-driven without any PR expectations.
Amazon likes PR stunts — the HQ2 pageant worked well for them – so here’s my idea on how the company could demonstrate to its workers the safety of the company’s warehouses. Lauren Sanchez, Bezos’s girlfriend, is a licensed helicopter pilot. Why don’t Bezos, Sanchez, Zaplonsky, and Carney visit all of Amazon’s warehouses and mingle with the workers? They can fly on Bezos’s Gulfstream G650ER across the country and rent helicopters to shuttle them to the sites. It would be the media opportunity of Zaplonsky’s dreams.
As for the person who leaked Zaplonsky’s memo, you performed a great public service. The world now knows for certain the ethics and values of Amazon’s senior management and the world’s richest person.