Last March, Jeff Bezos published a picture on Twitter of himself walking with a shiny robot dog. Many in the media () dutifully reported on this event, writing playful stories. Some 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 him maintaining a quiet personal life that 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 MacKenzieover 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 Bezos is viewed by the public creates a drastically new status quo for both him and Amazon. 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 apparent extortion plot against him. US authorities are already reportedly investigating the situation. Running a major corporation is difficult even in the best of times, so all these distractions aren’t welcome at a time that Amazon is aggressively growing in new industries and international markets and working on building two major 25,000-employee offices in New York and Virginia.
So far, Amazon appears to be doing fine, though its stock is down about 2 percent Friday. Also, at least 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, and 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.
Additionally, 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. 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.”
Then on Thursday, 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 Bezos 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. 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 it’s 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 former CBS producer Joe Halderman tried to use that information to blackmail the comedian for $2 million. (Techhnews’s parent company is CBS.) 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.
“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.”
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