The 20th century has seen the rise of (the) organisation, for good and for bad. Public relations has played its part in that ascent since the days of Edward L. Bernays. First in creating the consumer citizen. Later, often though not always, in deflecting criticism of malpractice.
Today we take a look at one of the strategies, public relations and other forms of strategic communication deploy in order to draw away attention from systemic malfunctions. Malfunctions that come with the wonder of organisation – the other side of the coin of ever growing wealth since the days of the industrial revolution.
In his groundbreaking master work, the Wealth Of Nations, Adam Smith wrote about the individual, that ‘he is (…) led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.’ While Smith meant unintended, positive outcomes of economic activity, the organised individual since the dawn of the 20th century also became part of organised malpractices that were unintended, too, but not for good.
It should be no surprise that the proper organisation of business goes hand in hand with the proper organisation of masking businesses’ dark and immoral sides. In Organsation und Moral, German professor for business and organisational theory, Günther Ortmann, outlines a bunch of strategies modern organisations use to mask malpractices, to divert attention from their wrongdoings. Sacrificing ‘rogue employees’, is among the favourites.
You might have heard of Amazon’s latest crisis. Germany’s biggest online retailer was publicly criticized because of degrading working conditions and housing for temporal workers, low wages, and Nazi-like security personal. Public outrage heavily focused on a contractor of Amazon, “H.E.S.S. Security”. The name should have given it away, for Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s longtime personal assistant, is a Nazi icon. H.E.S.S. was accused of mistreating temporal foreign workers at Amazon’s logistic centre in Bad Hersfeld, Germany. Since the allegations became public in a nationwide broadcast on the 13th of February, Amazon is under heavy fire. After a few days of silence, Amazon finally reacted on the 18th, with a press release and an interview with German head of Amazon, Ralf Kleber, in the news magazine Spiegel three days later. The company’s reply, as stated in The Independent was: “Although the security firm was not contracted by Amazon we are, of course, currently examining the allegations concerning the behaviour of security guards and will take the appropriate measures immediately. We do not tolerate discrimination or intimidation.”
Ralf Kleber, head of Amazon Germany, was hammering the same gap when he stated to be shocked by the pictures, shown in the documentary. But in the same sentence, he also claimed those incidents, not to be representative for Amazon’s human resource management.
Isolated incidents? Who knows. But the phrase Amazon uses in its press release is interesting: Although (…) not contracted by Amazon (…); concerning the behaviour of security guards and will take the appropriate measures immediately. We do not tolerate discrimination or intimidation.”
In the meantime, Amazon has terminated the contract with the security firm that was not contracted by Amazon. In doing so, Amazon shifted attention to what Ortmann would call a ‘rogue employee’. It’s a ‘rogue contractor’ here, of course.
The reports about Amazon’s logistic centres indicate a systematic practice of degrading especially foreign, temporal workers. But instead of dealing with this, Amazon solely focused on the role of its security company that was not even their security company. Amazon sacrificed a pawn. The company gives the public what it wants: someone who is responsible. Show time for human failure.
And here we encounter the communicative strategy behind the public scenery. Whether it is a train crashing into a house (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21088672), a cruise ship hitting a rock, or fraud at a bank, it is often an (criminal) individual, a ‘rogue employee’ that is first held to be responsible in public, whether it is true (which is likely in the sinking of the Costa Concordia) or not (a cleaner, see link above, was blamed wrongly for having stolen a train and crashed with it into a house).
But why do we fall for that? In some cases it might actually be the explanation, no doubt. In most cases, however, we would be much better off, as a society, to ask why this happened. Why does Amazon subcontract its logistics and why is the security yet again subcontracted? But silly old homo sapiens does not seem that interested.
The process of outsourcing not only generates opportunities to reduce costs. It creates chains of shrouded responsibility. And those chains divert public attention to misbehaviour at its outer links. And therefore Amazon can point with the finger to its ‘rogue employee’ to perform a re-entry of responsibility. That way, we have to understand Amazon’s initial reaction: ‘We, as Amazon, did not do anything wrong. But we take the responsibility and change things that actually went wrong.’
The public wants to see somebody who is to be blamed for things that went wrong. We need greedy bankers, light-headed cruise captains, and ‘criminal’ cleaners who steal trains, to blame them for what is going wrong. The question is of course, what if we take a closer look at the practices, the ‘rogue employee’ is blamed for? Well, we might find out some uncomforting facts about ourselves as customers, shareholders or tourists. We rather do not like to realise that the comfort of being in the hand of organisations also has a gloomy side. And we might realise, that ‘rogue employee’ might be just a small wheel in a much bigger machine, be it Amazon with H.E.S.S., or Apple with Foxconn. And we might discover that we are another small wheel, in the same machine, too.