Amazon Drones and the Uphill PR Battle

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Jeff Bezos Amazong 16.12.13

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos appeared on 60 Minutes to unveil his vision of using drones to deliver small packages (less than 5 lbs) for the company, America let out a collective gasp. “How much will it cost?” or “How will the FAA react?” or “Does that mean I’ll have my earrings before the company Christmas party?” … among others. According to Bezos, the program would allow online shoppers to receive their package in thirty minutes or less from the moment of purchase. Really. The program, called “Prime Air,” is still just a vision – not yet available nor with any mention of a launch date from Bezos.

As a communications professional, my first reaction — along with many people who caught the episode — was to ask a lot of questions. How will this comply with FAA regulations? What will happen with incorrect mailing addresses? What’s the cost?

The PR guy in me though kept focusing on one question — Why would Bezos refer to the flight tool as a ‘drone’ rather than his first term — ‘octocopter’? I would venture a guess that maybe 95 percent of Americans hear the word ‘drone’ and immediately visualize the flying monitoring/attack tool commonly used overseas to provide surveillance, attack terrorists, track people and materials, etc. While these tools have no doubt supported U.S. intelligence and the war on terror, they have also generated a lot of bad press for their use in attacks that have lead to civilian casualties. In fact, even when not used in military operations they remain controversy, judging by a recent issue caused when a drone was used in Montana to survey a family in dispute with local authorities over ownership of six cows.

While it remains up to you to determine your stance on drones (or not), the fact remains that the connotation of the word itself is far from a neutral subject. Speaking from a PR standpoint, it is a mistake that the first mention of ‘drones’ in the interview came from Bezos himself.

Shortly after the interview, both the FAA and Amazon confirmed that the promotional video airing was shot internationally due to regulations, tee-ing Bezos’ brainchild up for another, different, controversy. In the ’60 Minutes’ interview, Bezos mentions that Amazon is working with the FAA to get a better understanding of airspace rulings regarding drones, expected in 2015. The Washington Post went so far as to say, “The fact that Amazon had to leave the country to make the video underscores how slowly U.S. officials have embraced the policy challenge.” This makes me wonder whether or not this announcement was a little premature. In PR, launching a major product, idea, or organization is all about one thing – timing. With the technology requiring “years of additional work at this point”, I am not sure a company as large as Amazon is best served by short-term gimmicky media.

This lack of certainty and timeline, so far ahead of anything actually tangible resulted in high profile executives speaking out against the concept. “We’re not really focusing on long-term fantasies, we’re focusing on things that will change consumers’ experience today,” said Mr. John Donahoe, CEO of eBay. Again, announcing the technology while it’s in such an early stage, rather than an R&D project progressing towards a goal, leaves room for this kind of reaction.

So while Amazon HAS announced a sure-fire state of the art concept, this is one that is far away from coming to fruition and still deemed a fantasy. They clearly have an uphill battle to fight with the much maligned FAA — an organization that millions of individuals trust with their lives every year — which is a relationship that will require serious time, money and attention. On top of that, Google the project and you’ll find nobody is calling them ‘octocopters,’ but rather the negatively associated term ‘drone.’

These factors add up to set Amazon’s “Prime Air” up for a long public relations battle, one that if won, may change purchasing and fulfillment, but if it fails, will be nothing more than a discontinued idea and a gigantic waste of money.

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