When a billionaire falls in a (de)forest(ed planet), does anybody hear?
Blue Origin employees went rogue. Did anything change?
Lioness is prowling into 2022 on the heels of recent stories we’ve published about Deepak Chopra and two billionaires with fetishes to save the world (please, no thank you). More stories are coming soon: a court-ordered rehab facility full of drugs, trouble at Apple, and financial malfeasance at one of this year's most anticipated IPOs.
As “two random women publishing devastating essays”, we’ve broken big stories and hit a milestone: our first threat of a lawsuit! Not to poke the bear, but put it this way: the attorney of record’s website boasts that he represents Russian oligarchs.
One of our biggest stories this past year came about after former Blue Origin employee Alexandra Abrams saw the New York Times profile of Lioness and sent us a self-destructing ProtonMail (that we saw just in time).
We helped Abrams and 20 fellow employees and ex-employees of Blue Origin craft an essay exposing the rocket safety issues, sexual harassment, stifling of professional dissent, and environmental disregard that is daily life on planet Bezos. (Can’t wait to give birth to our future babies on that Mars colony, woohoo!)
We worked with journalists at a number of national outlets to coordinate reporting. What happens after a story like this traverses the globe (and reaches the bar of a Hitler Downfall meme)? When a billionaire falls in a (de)forest(ed planet), does anybody hear?
It seems they do.
The night before the essay was published, Blue Origin’s legal director sent Abrams a letter threatening legal action, charging that the essay was in breach of her severance agreement. There was no deterring Abrams at that point—this was a hill she was willing to die on, and she was willing to take the hit for the 20 others who wished to remain anonymous (the space industry is small, and putting your name on something like this can mean getting blacklisted).
At 10:00am, Lioness pushed the essay live. And then…
Blue Origin, the company purportedly “building a better future” apparently dusted off a 1990s-style crisis-PR playbook, and fired off a statement to the press that Abrams was fired for violating the Federal Export Control Act in an attempt to discredit her. (This was a lie - but that was the point! It doesn’t matter if it’s true. What matters is planting a seed of doubt in the public’s mind.)
Fabricating charges against a whistleblower is a classic tactic used by companies to change the public conversation. In fact, Abrams had flagged concerns about a messaging app’s security to management once it was developed. The app in question is still being used by Bezos’ companies today.
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith wasted no time responding to the allegations of a hostile work environment, seeking to “reassure” the company that Blue Origin’s spacecraft and rockets are safe, and that there’s “no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind*. (*Errr, back to that “better future for humanity"…the company might want to recognize that being called “baby girl” and “sweetheart” at work isn’t quite the future women envision for themselves, but we digress…)
Meanwhile, out in the real world, things were heating up.
Halfway through the day, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that they would be investigating the engineers’ safety concerns.
The most damning write up came from Bezos’ own newspaper, The Washington Post, a few days later. Space reporter Christian Davenport reported that Blue Origin was a company with an “authoritarian bro culture.”
The night before the WaPo article appeared, Bezos finally responded publicly to the allegations, if cryptically.
Then, the stories rolled in.
People who used to work at Blue Origin approached Abrams with accounts of their own.
A former employee: “I have never been so depressed during and after working for Blue.”
A former engineer: “If any legal troubles do come out for you, I would be more than happy to document my experience regarding suspected disregard for rocket safety.”
A married couple who both worked at Blue Origin: Blue Origin “was a horrible experience for me and my husband. We read your article and couldn't agree with you more. I am so glad that we are no longer there.”
Thousands of Twitter, Reddit and other social media users were sharing the essay by the afternoon of publication day. Within a week, the essay had gone so viral that conspiracy theories took hold (because, uh, that always happens now).
Exactly two weeks after the essay, Blue Origin went forward with their plan to launch Star Trek actor William Shatner into space, no doubt a welcome PR diversion. We prayed for Captain Kirk’s safety, knowing all the shit that was going wrong on those rockets. Turns out this time, the only hazard was Bezos embarrassing himself by cutting off Shatner’s moving speech by spraying him with champagne.
Hopefully, this public pressure will cause Congress to shift the rules around what the FAA does and does not regulate when it comes to space travel. Currently, the only aspect of safety on private space flights that is regulated involves ensuring a rocket doesn’t hit a passenger plane or shed debris on our heads.
Oh, and here’s what didn’t happen:
Abrams was never sued by Blue Origin. They may have realized that the second-richest man on Earth suing a former communications officer to recoup her $48,230.88* severance pay was not a good look.
(*Bezos earns that in approximately 30 seconds, on a bad day.)
Until the next story,
(Ariella + Amber)