Two billionaires went to the edge of space; both returned safely, but one of them landed in a PR scupper.
The moment of a lifetime for Amazon founder and Executive Chairman Jeff Bezos — going to space in his very own rocket ship (how insane!) — was diminished by comments he made during his post-flight press conference.
When a jubilant Bezos thanked “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this,” he sparked a social media backlash that made every comms pro cringe.
Amazon employees were among those who took to social media, with Tweets criticizing Bezos for being self-absorbed and greedy. Bezos’ comments also provided critics of the multinational e-commerce giant the opportunity to revive issues related to pay, working conditions and treatment of employees — not the anticipated narrative for this historic moment.
In contrast, when Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson spoke to media following his return from space 10 days prior, he came off as more gracious in his comments. That’s not to say Branson didn’t also experience some pushback after his space flight. He was later criticized for misusing his billionaire’s resources at the expense of finding solutions to more pressing issues like racism and climate change. But here, too, Branson didn’t misstep. He simply shifted the narrative and pointed out the useful benefits of space travel in addressing climate change and other issues.
Lost in Bezos’ comments were the significance of this event and the promise it holds for future generations — a monumental event overshadowed by a communications gaffe. It’s why we work with clients to make sure they not only know what to say in the moment, but that there’s empathy and awareness within the message that correlates to the situation and the intended audience.
It’s possible Bezos knew all of those things and just went off script, as rouge billionaires sometimes do, but if we were to make a wager on the probability of that, we’d likely bet against him.