Bezos Flips Script on National Enquirer

In the 1996 movie Ransom, Mel Gibson stars as an executive whose son is kidnapped by a bad guy played by Gary Sinise. The boy is held for ransom, and in the movie’s most famous scene, Gibson appears on the local news and pours $2 million in cash onto the anchor desk.  He then says:

This is your ransom. Two million dollars in unmarked bills, just like you wanted. But this is as close as you’ll ever get to it. You’ll never see one dollar of this money, because no ransom will ever be paid for my son. Not one dime, not one penny. Instead, I’m offering this money as a reward on your head.

I couldn’t help but think about this scene when I read Jeff Bezos’s blog post last week, targeting the publisher of the National Enquirer David Pecker. Just as Mel turned the “hunter” Sinise into “the hunted” in the movie, Bezos flipped the script on the National Enquirer.

Bezos owns Amazon. He’s the richest person on the planet. And he’s going through a divorce.

The Enquirer got hold of some text messages between Bezos and his new girlfriend and then published some unflattering stories. And the paper threatened to publish some embarrassing selfies. Bezos, who has access to a lot of technology and also owns the Washington Post, decided to hit back. He investigated the Enquirer and found that the tabloid’s attack on him appears to be politically motivated – and then he told Pecker this. Apparently it didn’t sit well with Pecker, who was allegedly apoplectic about the insinuation, particularly given the fact that, as Bezos points out:

AMI, the owner of the National Enquirer, led by David Pecker, recently entered into an immunity deal with the Department of Justice related to their role in the so-called ‘Catch and Kill’ process on behalf of President Trump and his election campaign.

Bezos’s blog post is almost the perfect example of transparency. Bezos tells his side of the tale, even though it is unflattering, and then he publishes the Enquirer’s emails which showcase the paper’s smarmy attempt to slither away from Bezos’s gut punch. He blatantly calls out the paper’s extortion attempt.

What has transpired since is a rich back/forth within the media landscape, highlighted by some great “pecker” headlines. Yet the most interesting thing to me is how Bezos knocked the typically aggressive Enquirer back on its heels. The publication that has its roots in stories about Bigfoot’s love slave, factually challenged articles about celebrities, and making its subjects uncomfortable with aggressive tactics now finds itself on the defensive.

Bezos did something that many people want to do in a PR crisis but often choose not to: Fight. He turned the tables on the Enquirer using a combination of his legendary smarts, his own research and one other thing the Enquirer is often unfamiliar with: the truth.

As PR moves goes, I think this is a master stroke. If the Enquirer chooses to publish the photos, then it essentially proves the extortion play. If it sulks away in the night, then it proves that it still belongs on the underbelly of the world of media outlets. Regardless, I imagine some lawsuits will start flying, and we know that Bezos can afford protracted litigation.

Since I first decided to write about this, a few new developments have emerged. One is that it appears that the brother of Bezos’s girlfriend leaked the text messages, and he’s a staunch Trump fan. The second is that Bezos’s accusations that the Enquirer’s actions were tied to Saudi Arabia might not be precisely true. Of course, that’s dripping with irony. The National Enquirer now finds itself defending media reports powered by alternative facts.

In many situations in the PR game, we automatically work our way to the least painful and least controversial moves. We follow the textbook and play it safe. Bezos gives us an example of why this is sometimes the wrong move. My favorite part of his post is this snippet:

Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?

Sometimes it’s best to fight.

What do you think? Did Bezos make the right decision jumping into the mud pit? Do Mel Gibson movies not called Braveheart deserve to be quoted in a blog?

–John

 

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