In what some initially speculated to be a homophobic new expurgation policy, Amazon.com removed hundreds of gay and lesbian themed books from its sales rating system, effectively concealing these books from online shoppers. Some titles were completely delisted from Amazon’s search engine. The controversy may never have provoked such widespread media attention — or an official company response — if the story hadn’t contagiously spread around the Twittersphere under the hashtag, #amazonfail.

As it turns out, the removal was a result of a mere programming error. Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener explained in a statement:

“This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection. It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles — in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally.”

The statement is thoughtful and well-crafted but lacked both punctuality and contrition. Sam Machkovech at Slog observes, “[Amazon’s] proper, human response was run through the corporate PR wringer for a full day before finally landing.” And Kate Harding over at Salon.com notes, “It’s still not a real apology to all the authors and publishers affected, or the customers who had pretty good reason to wonder if Amazon had indeed instated a homophobic and misogynistic corporate policy.”

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Sam Machkovech

Walking the Walk of Social Media

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Did Amazon really deserve the uproarious reaction? Were they the victim or the crime in all of this? The Seattle-based company has a track record of progressive corporate values and the problem was, after all, technical and accidental.

In a conversational medium, it doesn’t just matter whether you can walk the walk — you need to be able to talk the talk as well. With its reader reviews and customer rankings, Amazon is to a large extent a social media company. Why then was its response to this controversy somewhat anti-social?

By waiting so long to issue a statement, the company didn’t just allow rumors that the company was discriminatory to circulate, it also allowed a well-known hacker to claim that the ordeal was caused by an organized prank for which he was responsible. Keeping with the maxim that “a lie will go half-way around the world while the truth is putting its boots on,” several highly influential blogs (including one on Wired) gave traction to the hacker’s false claims.

To be fair, this all unfolded on Easter Sunday. But while 20 Amazon employees were paged, and their attention brought to the #amazonfail meme on Twitter (by the way, more tweets contained this hashtag on Sunday than mentioned “Easter” or “Jesus”), the statement wasn’t sent to reporters until Monday afternoon.

Even if the timing of Amazon’s statement can be forgiven, the decision to issue a statement to the Associated Press was odd. After all, the AP was not the victim here. Why not write directly to the LGBT customers it offended (albeit unintentionally) or the authors whose book sales were affected? Amazon has plenty of channels through which it could have done this. It could’ve updated one of its blogs or, of all things, its Twitter feed. I guarantee that the AP and other media outlets would have covered the mea culpa either way.

I often counsel clients on the value of the Internet to bypass traditional media channels and communicated directly with customers (and other stakeholders). In this case, Amazon seems to have bypassed the concerned customers who were questioning its policies and taken its “glitch” message to the traditional media. There’s a reason that media relations is only a small subset of public relations — in this case it wasn’t the right tool to reach for. Tech consultant Deanna Zandt summed up the lessons for Amazon on how not to handle a social media rampage.

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Will Jeff Bezos respond?

Since Amazon issued its statement, a new hashtag has emerged: #sorryamazon. But the majority of tweets still contain the #amazonfail tag (and some are tracking along at #glitchmyass). Most folks it seems are in the mood for getting — not giving — an apology. As Twitterer MackStone writes, “I’m seeing ‘we glitched’. That’s not the same as ‘we’re sorry.’ Apology notable by its absence.”

One of the great ironies here has gone largely unnoticed: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos believes in Twitter so much that he’s one of its major funders. It will be interesting to see whether he directs his company to issue the apology that Twitter users are pining for. In the vast Amazon that is the Twittersphere, the natives are getting restless.

Editor’s Note: Be sure to vote in our poll about #AmazonFail and have your say!

Mark Hannah has spent the past several years conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He specializes in issues and reputation management online. Before joining the PR agency world (v-Fluence Interactive and Edelman), Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently conducted advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, and he serves as an awards judge for both organizations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he’s currently pursuing a master’s in strategic communications at Columbia University. He is an independent communications consultant based in New York City and the public relations correspondent for MediaShift. You can reach him at markphannah[at]gmail[dot]com.

Photo of Jeff Bezos by Mathieu Thouvenin via Flickr.