Amazon’s Recovery from Kindle Content Deletion Crisis Evaluated

In the middle of 2009, owners of e-reader Kindle got a nasty surprise when Amazon snatched back e-books that it turned out were supplied illegally. Amazon’s supplier didn’t have the rights to distribute the content, so Amazon accessed Kindles and deleted it.

Seems like no problem to me, but then, I don’t have a Kindle. Amazon got to enjoy seven days of flame and shouting for its trouble.

Drs. W. Timothy Coombs and Sherry J. Holladay of Eastern Illinois University (kind of a hotbed of pithy PR scholarship), presented a paper about Amazon’s week from hell at the 13th International PR Research Conference.  Dr. Coombs is a preeminent theorist on crisis communication, the author of several books and papers about it, and a good presenter who carries a quick wit with his slide rule.  He a smart dude.

Apparently, the “Kindle Community” was pretty angry about having “their” stuff unceremoniouslyyanked. Amazon’s notification statement lacked complete information, or ordinary human compassion, according to those who read it:

“The Kindle edition books Animal Farm by George Orwell, published by MobileReference (mobi) and 1984 by George Orwell, published by MobileReference (mobi) were removed from the Kindle store and are no longer available for purchase. When this occurred, your purchases were automatically refunded. you can still locate the books in the Kindle store, but each has a status of not yet available. Although are rarity, publishers can decide to pull their content from the Kindle store.”

Commenters went ballistic, and before you could blink, there were boycotts threatened. So Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos posted an abject apology, saying in part: “Our ‘solution’ to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles.” He beat on his company pretty hard.

Coombs and Holladay found that the florid, nearly over-the-top apology worked very well. 71 percent accepted the apology, nearly 16 percent accepted it conditionally, and just 13 percent rejected it.  More important, more than 21 percent indicated they were more likely to buy from Amazon versus 10.5 percent said they were less likely to buy.

So what’s that mean? It means that Coombs’ main theories of crisis communication are holding steady in the online world — the process of admitting you’ve done wrong, taking steps to rectify the situation and ensure it won’t happen again, and beating yourself up a bit in the process result in restoring positive feelings among your stakeholders.

There surely are crises where this won’t happen — some things are just too bad — but this study gives additional support to the basis for advice during crisis times.

Watch for the complete paper in May when the IPRRC proceedings are released.

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