Last March, Jeff Bezos published a picture on Twitter of himself walking with a shiny robot dog. Many in the media (including CNET) dutifully reported on the event, writing playful stories. Silly memes followed.
Then we promptly forgot about it.
That brief flash encapsulated Bezos' public profile for much of his career. Amazon's founder and CEO carefully cultivated a persona as a captain of industry, futurist and smartest guy in the room. Yes, many criticized his ruthless business practices and lack of charitable giving, but most perceived him as a winner and a genius. This image was helped by his quiet personal life which, at least from afar, seemed free of controversy: longtime marriage, four kids, close relationship with his parents.
In a startling turn of events over the past few weeks, Bezos' public persona has turned into something entirely different. After he and his wife MacKenzie announced their divorce over Twitter last month, Bezos' extramarital affair quickly hit the gossip pages. Then, late Thursday, Bezos published a lengthy Medium post revealing an alleged blackmail plot by the National Enquirer, a publication with close ties to President Donald Trump. The paper was threatening to reveal salacious pictures of Bezos if he didn't back off an investigation into its work.
In quick order, the man who became the world's richest person after founding a company in his garage in 1994 had every major publication in the US -- including the one he personally owns -- writing stories about his alleged dick pic.
The days of innocent robot dogs are over.
This change in how the public perceives Bezos creates a drastically new status quo for both the CEO and his company. Bezos will have to live with being under a microscope from the likes of TMZ for the foreseeable future while he works through his divorce and the apparent extortion plot. US authorities are reportedly investigating the situation already. Running a major corporation is difficult in the best of times, so these distractions aren't welcome as Amazon aggressively grows in new industries and international markets, and works on two new 25,000-employee offices in New York and Virginia.
Amazon's stock is down about 2 percent on Friday, but otherwise appears to be doing fine. For now, Bezos is benefiting from a sympathetic public response to his revelations of secret blackmail, taking a potential weakness and turning it into a strength. Amazon didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.
"Jeff Bezos was really facing a situation where those images might be hanging over his head for years to come," said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra's Lawrence Herbert School of Communication and a former network news executive. "So putting them out in the public in his own terms … was a masterstroke."
The Trump connection
Bezos' personal problems spilled out into the public sphere in January, when he and his wife jointly announced a surprise but amicable divorce. The wording of their letter was positive and they said they'd remain friends.
Just hours later the National Enquirer reported that Bezos has been dating Lauren Sanchez, an actress and helicopter pilot. It also published a series of intimate texts Bezos sent Sanchez, including: "I want to smell you, I want to breathe you in. I want to hold you tight… I want to kiss your lips... I love you. I am in love with you." In his Medium post Thursday, Bezos confirmed that the texts were his.
Gossip sites filed stories about Sanchez while general news publications considered how the divorce could impact Amazon going forward, since MacKenzie Bezos could end up with half her husband's 16 percent ownership in the company.
It wasn't long before Trump's connection to the Enquirer and its publisher David Pecker came into play. The publication's parent company, American Media Inc., in December admitted to helping Trump keep quiet an alleged affair he had with an ex-Playboy model by paying her off. Trump has repeatedly pilloried Bezos for coverage in The Washington Post, a paper Bezos personally owns, so it seemed an odd coincidence that the Enquirer would be the one to dig up dirt on Bezos.
The White House didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.
The Daily Beast reported that Bezos hired an investigator, Gavin de Becker, to find out how the Enquirer acquired his texts. Bezos on Thursday confirmed this fact, as well. De Becker suggested in the Daily Beast that "strong leads point to political motives."
The Post reported in early February that the Enquirer's reporting may have been "a political hit job."
Bezos revealed a lot more in his Medium post. He wrote that behind the scenes AMI was working to suppress this angle of reporting. It wanted Bezos and de Becker to make a false statement publicly that they "have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI's coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces."
To get Bezos to do this, AMI's Dylan Howard sent de Becker's lawyer a bullet-pointed written message detailing a series of racy pictures the publisher had of the billionaire CEO, including a "below the belt selfie." In the message, Howard also describes "a naked selfie in a bathroom -- while wearing his wedding ring. Mr. Bezos is wearing nothing but a white towel -- and the top of his pubic region can be seen."
Instead of bowing to these demands, Bezos publicly exposed them, saying in his post: "If in my position I can't stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?" Journalist Ronan Farrow bolstered Bezos' claims by saying he, too, had faced blackmail efforts from American Media when he was looking into the publisher's connections to Trump.
AMI on Friday morning sent out a statement saying:
American Media believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos. Further, at the time of the recent allegations made by Mr. Bezos, it was in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him. Nonetheless, in light of the nature of the allegations published by Mr. Bezos, the Board has convened and determined that it should promptly and thoroughly investigate the claims. Upon completion of that investigation, the Board will take whatever appropriate action is necessary.
Played extremely well
Hofstra's Lukasiewicz called Bezos' move a public relations coup that will likely be discussed in future PR classes. Instead of people gossiping about Bezos' scandalous affair and intimate pictures, they are focusing on AMI and its alleged attempt at extortion.
"Anytime a prominent business leader of a public company or a political figure has scandal in his private life, yes it's damaging," Lukasiewicz said. "But he has flipped the narrative now."
This type of situation has happened before. Former CBS late-night host David Letterman a decade ago confessed on his show that he had sex with several women on his staff after Joe Halderman, a former CBS producer, tried to use that information to blackmail the comedian for $2 million. (CBS is CNET's parent company.) Halderman pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree grand larceny in an ensuing trial and was sentenced to six months in prison. Letterman, like Bezos, was largely viewed sympathetically by the public.
More blowback for AMI may already be on the way. Bloomberg reported Friday that federal prosecutors are looking into whether any criminal activity may have occurred at the Enquirer related to the publication's dealings with Bezos. Several publications also reported that the situation may expose AMI and its leaders to potential criminal charges in the coverup of Trump's alleged affair with the former Playboy model. A prior cooperation deal to avoid such charges may have been voided by the alleged blackmail attempt.
"As far as his reputation and his company's reputation, Jeff Bezos has played this extremely well," Lukasiewicz said. "I think this is a win for him and I think this is something that will be applauded."
Jennifer Magas, a clinical associate professor of public relations at Pace University and owner of PR firm Magas Media Consultants, said she recommends a set of actions for crisis communications. They including speaking first, speaking often and taking control of the narrative. With one exception -- apologizing to his wife and family -- Bezos hit them all, she said.
"He has taken the scandal away from his affair," Magas added, "and presented himself as both a victim and a champion at the same time."
First published at 11:13 a.m. PT.
Updated at 12:49 p.m. PT: Adds comments from Pace professor and Ronan Farrow.
Updated at 2:34 p.m. PT: Adds more details on potential criminal charges.
Correction at 12:30 p.m. PT: Clarifies that AMI's email was sent to de Becker's lawyer, not Bezos.
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