Getting It Right, and Sometimes Wrong: Four PR Lessons Every Company Can Learn from Amazon’s HQ2 Search

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“The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.” That quote by Robert Burns can have particular meaning in today’s public relations culture, where so many things are uncontrollable. Even the biggest PR machines can’t always predict people’s reactions — but they should be able to adjust to the changing conditions. Whether you’re doing PR for a business that employs 4 people, or 40,000, we can all learn from the hits and misses of Amazon’s HQ2 Search.

The Background.  

In September of 2017, online retail giant Amazon announced a high-profile and extensive search for its next new headquarters outside of Seattle. Executives cleverly dubbed it HQ2, and they encouraged cities across North America to submit proposals. At stake? $1.5 billion in construction contracts for a new office complex and 50,000 new six-figure jobs.

The scheme was a public relations gravy train! Amazon received media coverage at every level: national, local, television, radio, print, and social media. The following January, Amazon announced 20 finalists from an initial pool of 238 proposals. Ten months later, the company split the prize and awarded two HQ2s: one in northern Virginia, and one in New York City.

In the first three months of 2019 the tide of public opinion turned. The company received criticism for the amount of incentives (read: taxpayer money) it was negotiating. The company’s public statements were seen as tone-deaf and insensitive. After a public resistance from New York politicians and activists, Amazon pulled out of the New York deal. Several investigative reporters published articles claiming insight into Amazon’s selection process and all painted Amazon and CEO Jeff Bezos in a negative light.

The Lessons.

1. Publicity Stunts Work to Create Buzz

Rather than quietly requesting certain cities submit proposals. Jeff Bezos directed his team to launch a massive, reality-show-style contest. According to Apex Marketing, the buzz related to the HQ2 search was worth at least $42 million in media placement. During just the first two weeks of November 2017, HQ2-related social media discussions generated more than $8.6 million worth of attention.

Additionally, cities began splashy and creative efforts to catch Amazon executives’ attention. For example, Birmingham, Ala. made headlines when it installed massive Amazon delivery boxes around the city. Kansas City’s mayor purchased and wrote five-star reviews for 1,000 items on Amazon’s website. Each review touted something positive about Kansas City, and the items were given to local charities. A local economic development group from Tucson, Ariz. delivered a 21-foot-tall cactus to Amazon’s Seattle headquarters.

No matter the size of your business, start thinking outside the box. How can you incorporate a publicity stunt into your next campaign, new location ribbon cutting, new product rollout, etc.? Our agency placed goody-filled piñatas in highly populated locations around Richmond, Virginia to introduce our client, Tex-Mex restaurant Tijuana Flats, to the new market. This effort grabbed headlines and created a buzz with those who encountered them around the city.

2. People First. Don’t Forget Your #1 Audience: Your Customers.

At the time, Bezos made no secret of his intention to start a bidding war using public incentives. “Why does the richest man in the world need billions of dollars in tax breaks?” asked one newspaper. Politicians and activists supported grassroots movements against Amazon in Queens. When responding to the criticism in New York, news outlets claimed Amazon’s Vice President of Public Policy came off as tone-deaf. Critics said he fell back on job figures and dollar signs, rather than understanding residents’ concerns.

In this scenario, Amazon seemingly lost sight of its target market—the citizens of New York City and northern Virginia. Before making any significant move (or at least before announcing it)

  • View the change through your target audience’s eyes. How will they react and respond?
  • Anticipate criticism and create understanding, empathic responses th
  • Show your customers that you care for them—you have no business without them.

Interestingly, Amazon’s economic development team previously employed a successful strategy when expanding into a new area. Internally dubbed “The Welcome Wagon,” executives traveled to the new locations and hosted meetings to answer residents’ questions. A Connecticut mayor described the process. “The public perception was a big company like Amazon will come in and steamroll our little town, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Their outreach was very impressive. They took the hard questions and jumped right in front of everything.”

So why did Amazon execs choose to deviate from their successful playbook, setting aside the concerns of their target market? We’ll never know, and hopefully we’ll never make the same mistake.

3. Transparency is Key — Especially in the 21st Century

Amazon gets both an “A” and an “F” on this principle. While parts of its HQ2 search were very public and open, later in the 14-month-long process, the company was heavily criticized for its secrecy and lack of transparency. A Bloomberg News investigation revealed that, prior to the contest, Amazon executives had formulated a list of 25 potential cities for the HQ2. Officials from cities not chosen privately said they felt slighted. They felt they were manipulated into believing they might have a shot, and so they put tens of thousands of dollars into proposals and publicity stunts, when there were likely only a few real candidates. To make matters worse, Amazon remained tight-lipped about why certain cities were not selected as finalists.

Transparency has become a key tenant of trust in today’s world. This can be especially important in the COVID-19 era. When creating a marketing strategy for the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard, our team developed transparent messaging around health and safety guidelines to ensure attendees knew what to expect well in advance. API also built trust by showing how organizers were keeping attendees safe.

4. Cross-purpose Your Assets

Let’s just be honest, most marketing and public relations departments are under-resourced. You’re tasked with creating brilliant strategies and campaigns with not enough money, manpower or time. So let’s take a page from Amazon’s playbook; cross-purpose your assets.

  • Hiring a videographer to shoot a commercial? Edit and reuse the footage for social media posts.
  • That press release you just wrote… turn it into a blog post, then share it on your social media channels.
  • Solicit user-generated content (UGC) on your website and social channels and re-use it in upcoming campaigns.

There are dozens of ways to repurpose content and assets you already have.

In its search for a new HQ2, Amazon became queen of crowd-sourced data. More than 200 cities willingly offered up information on population, mass transportation, real estate and more. HQ2 spectators have long maintained the contest wasn’t really about picking one location for Amazon’s second headquarters. Rather, it was an ingenious strategy to get cities to hand over reams of data that could inform Amazon’s growth throughout North America. For example, don’t be surprised if Amazon announces a major artificial intelligence operation in Pittsburg, or an expansion of their Austin, Tex. Tech Hub in the future.

Amazon, like your company, can pool its resources, using material (perhaps discarded) for one project, as the foundation of a new project.

Key Takeaways

Amazon’s HQ2 search serves as an example for businesses of all sizes, in all markets. By creating a buzz, focusing on your core customer, being transparent, and cross-purposing your assets, you can deliver big wins for your business — even if you don’t have a Prime account.