Sunday, 23 November 2014

PR Advice for Uber

One of the ways those in strategic and crisis PR professionals, like me, practice and fine tune our skills is by role playing current crisis and communication challenges faced by people and organisations.

What if? What if you were in-charge? What would you do to manage the situation? For example what if you had to advice Uber right now?

Here is the back story, a very brief one:

BuzzFeed broke the story, Uber Executive Suggests Digging Up Dirt On Journalists, in which the company's senior vice president Emil Michael allegedly floated making critics’ personal lives fair game. Michael specifically mentioned PandoDaily’s founder and editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy, who had been critical of the company in the past.

Then the everyone involved on Uber's side apologised by emails, tweets, statements. The outrage was not subsiding because most people didn't understand why Uber doesn't sack the executive, especially since the Uber CEO publicly said Michael showed "lack of leadership" and it is not the view of the company.

The reason why he was not sacked could also be understood if you read this Vanity Fair article. Uber pride itself for being "aggressive":

Uber, Travis Kalanick’s smartphone-based car service, has been valued at $18.2 billion, but its C.E.O. still spends a lot of his time on the warpath. His enemies include the taxi industry, regulators around the world, his rivals, and even, on occasion, his customers. 
Every now and then, when he’s spoiling for a fight, Travis Kalanick has a face like a fist. At these times, his eyes crinkle, his nose flares, and his mouth purses just like a clenched hand readying a punch. Even his Marine-style, salt-and-pepper hair seems to stand on end and bristle, as it were, at whatever the 38-year-old entrepreneur happens to be facing down. 

After the initial blow up, someone at Uber might have thought it was time to bring in the big guns and all of a sudden you start seeing a series of tweets from Ashton Kutcher, actor and Uber investor. He backs Uber exec's call to expose lives of female reporters and asks 'What's so wrong about digging up dirt on shady journalist?' The bold emphasis is mine. It is interesting because he uses singular and not plural. It's seems like both Kutcher and Michael know who they are talking about.
With this tweet and then his climb down once he realised his fuck up, the issue went from 100 to 100,000. Ideally, in PR you want an event to die out and hope public memory is shorter than you are being told. Perhaps Kutcher was acting alone and not from advice from Uber, after all as an investor he wanted to make a few billions more since the product gig at Lenovo, playing make believe Steve Jobs and funding start-ups isn't getting anywhere.

After this the PR emphasis seems to me on discrediting the source, journalist, the original article and the BuzzFeed website itself:

BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith Says His Uber Scoop Didn’t Need a Disclosure
An Entrepreneur Who Went To Last Week’s Uber Dinner Tells Another Side To Buzzfeed’s Story
HUFFPOST: BUZZFEED EIC'S HIT PIECE ON UBER 'NOT TRUE,' 'SENSATIONALIZED'

Again, I am not sure if this is planned for sure but it is possible that someone might have advised, "let's fight back!"

Sadly wrong move again. Predictably, it started a war:

Uber’s smear machine thinks you’re a total idiot
Taxi App CEO: Uber Is an ‘A–Hole’

A lot of this escalation is because of the serious mutual back-scratching amongst investors, some media and middlemen. Not to mention the serious alpha male egos. There are no more nice guys, mostly just a whole bunch of assholes who know how to code - and somehow that's being seen as a positive attribute.

So, what would you do or have advised if you were on Team Uber?


  1. Apologise. Sack Michael instantly. 
  2. If you can't sack Michael, send him away on long leave. 
  3. Send a mail to all investors and stakeholders stating: "We are ashamed of what happened, it should have never happened. We apologise, we have no excuses to offer and Ashton Kutcher, DON'T EVEN THINK OF TWEETING ANYTHING IN SUPPORT OF US!"
  4. If you threatened a journalist, suggested using travel logs of single women to use it against them, there is NO, "Let's Fight BACK!" You started the fight, don't start round two by planting stories it never happened or discrediting everyone reporting it. Pick your battles, you are not the victim here. 
  5. Spend you money and resources in creating more positive narrative. You want people to relate to you as something that is on their side, Robin Hood like, fighting against the inefficient system and regulators to give more value.  This means NOT being an asshole and if you are, please don't go around publicising it. You need the media on your side to fight this battle.

Just my two cents.