Local news stations across the U.S. aired a segment produced and scripted by Amazon which touts the company's role in delivering essential groceries and cleaning products during the COVID-19 pandemic, and its ability to do so while "keeping its employees safe and healthy."
The segment, which was aired by at least 11 local TV stations, and which was introduced with a script written by Amazon and recited verbatim by news anchors, presents a fawning picture of Amazon, which has struggled to deliver essential items during the pandemic, support the sellers that rely on its platform, and provide its workers with the necessary protective equipment. Each anchor introduces the script then throws to an Amazon-produced look "inside" an Amazon fulfillment center, which is narrated by Amazon spokesperson Todd Walker:
"Millions of Americans staying at home are relying on amazon to deliver essentials like groceries and cleaning products during the COVID-19 outbreak.
For the first time we're getting a glimpse *inside* Amazon's fulfillment centers to see just how the company is keeping its employees safe and healthy.. While delivering packages to your doorstep.
Todd Walker takes us inside."
The segment features interviews with Amazon employees who profess to be dedicated to their job.
"I was extremely proud of my team and the way they were handling the situation on a daily basis. Every day they came to work ready to embrace change," Marty Kuhl, an Amazon fulfillment center site leader says in the segment.
Each station introduced Walker as though he were one of their own reporters. He is, in fact, a "PR manager" at Amazon, according to his LinkedIn page. Walker used to be a broadcast journalist, according to his personal website and a sizzle reel he produced for his site.
“With a decade of experience, I thrive during chaotic breaking news, providing extensive coverage on all platforms,” he wrote on his website. “Viewers know me as the reporter who fights for them and digs for answers.”
Amazon sent the footage out to news stations as a press release, which is available here, and came with information about how to best run the segment: "Go inside one of the company’s fulfillment centers to see the unprecedented ways Amazon is using innovation to continue operating, including COVID-19 testing, disinfectant spraying and physical distancing."
On his LinkedIn page, Walker wrote that he "got to dust off my reporting skills to give local markets their first look inside our fulfillment centers to see how Amazon is protecting the health and safety of its associates to continue delivering for you. News friends, the story is available to download in this link if you'd like to give your viewers inside access. I made a plug-and-play version, as well as one anchors and reporters can track themselves. It's already been shared in markets from Los Angeles to Lexington."
Recently, Amazon has come under heat for ending $2 an hour hazard pay, as well as its unlimited unpaid leave policy—, benefits offered to help warehouse workers during the pandemic. In recent weeks, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, Queens, Chicago, Detroit, and Minnesota have walked off the job, demanding Amazon do more to protect worker health and safety. The news segment shows footage of BFI4, an Amazon fulfillment center in Kent, Washington. So far, at least eight Amazon warehouse employees have died of COVID-19 and more than 75 facilities have confirmed cases.
On Sunday, Zach Rael, an anchor and reporter at ABC's KOCO 5 News, tweeted out the script and "pre-edited" story that he said Amazon's public relations team emailed to him, and that was pitched as an "inside look" at the company's response to COVID-19.
"No," Rael tweeted. "Let us go inside the fulfillment centers with our own cameras…"
A reasonable response from a journalist, but not one that other local news stations shared. Timothy Burke, who broke the news for Courier, identified a total of 11 stations across the country that aired it. Using a media monitoring tool called Critical Mention, Motherboard independently identified six stations that aired the segment and repeated the script that Rael shared: NBC Palm Springs News, 9 On Your Side News from Greenville, NC, WTVM News from Columbus, GA, WVVA Bluefield, WV, and LEX 18 News from Lexington, KY.
“We welcome reporters into our buildings and it’s misleading to suggest otherwise," Alyssa Bronikowski, a spokesperson for Amazon, told Motherboard. "This type of video was created to share an inside look into the health and safety measures we’ve rolled out in our buildings and was intended for reporters who for a variety of reasons weren’t able to come tour one of our sites themselves.”
The Amazon spokesperson, insisting that they not be directly quoted, also made various other claims. Lots of companies distribute similar videos, they said, and journalists can't enter Amazon warehouses due to the risk of contracting a deadly virus and so running footage Amazon created of workers is the next-best thing. Additionally, they said that the promotional video was not a promotional video and that no one who participated in it was paid. Whether this includes Walker, the Amazon PR manager, is unclear.
Do you work at a news station and have a story about Amazon's PR strategy? Or do you have a tip to share about working at Amazon? We'd love to hear from you. You can reach Lauren at email@example.com or on Signal 201-897-2109.
Throughout the pandemic, Amazon's PR team has repeatedly accused labor groups of “spreading misinformation” about the firings of organizers and strike activity. Lead Amazon spokesperson Jay Carney has come under heat for defending Amazon’s decision to fire several organizers who have led walkouts.
These stations did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Zach Rael did not immediately respond to a request for comment.