Uber crisis gets uber-worse with limp social media 'apology'

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan November 18, 2014
Day 2 of Uber’s PR crisis that’s uber-bad and getting uber-worse by the minute, thanks at least in part to some frankly ghastly PR social media management.

The story so far: Uber’s a disruptive bad boy of the digital age, shaking up the traditional taxicab business and generally making a noise and name for itself. OK, it’s on the receiving end of legal challenges of various shapes and sizes, ranging from individual airports through to entire countries in Europe, but that’s what happens when you take on the establishment, isn't it?

So far, so enfant terrible.

Then come the faux pas, climaxing this week with the comments made ‘off the record’ at a New York dinner attended by the media where a senior Uber exec, Emil Michael, suggested spending a million dollars on a sort of counter-strike team against the media. This would dig up dirt on journalists and turn it against them.

Suddenly no more enfant terrible, just really, really terrible.

As USA Today noted yesterday, Uber has one serious PR and image problem with:

what many consider a sexist "bro culture."

It's hard to imagine a company with a more diverse leadership team threatening to invade the privacy of a journalist and her family; running a promotion in France that promises to pair Uber riders with "hot chicks"; or turning on female passengers who have accused drivers of assault or bad behavior, not to mention having the CEO call the company "Boob-er" because it's been a honeypot for women.

An apology?

Said CEO, Travis Kalanick, took to Twitter with his own rambling apology, one that is all mea culpa and not much indication of what steps will actually be taken to reform the company’s culture.

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The problem here is a lack of concrete commitments. When you read the first 3 tweets, it seems that Michael’s days are numbered. But once we get past the platitudes about hearts and minds and commitments to the community, tweet 13 (or rather, the first tweet 13) indicates that he’s going nowhere.

Now this 14 tweet stream of consciousness does at first seem to put some kind of PR spin/apology into the public domain. But in fact this appears to be a chopped-up re-issue of an internal corporate memo to employees, which probably explains how badly structured it is as a series of tweets.

It would have been far more powerful if Kalanick had composed dedicated tweets that were only designed to exist as tweets.

As it is, this in fact comes across as a broken up messaging document to Uber staffers about what to do and not do - AKA closing the stable door after the horse has long since bolted. It certainly isn’t a public declaration of contrition on the part of Uber.

No solution

Whatever the case, this rambling text stream is not going to help the firm to shake off its current biggest problem: being perceived to have threatened to pick on a female journalist, the editor of tech site PandoDaily, in particular for her criticism of Uber.

The second tweet 13 is the last minute apology to that journalist, Sarah Lacy, and the mis-numbering might suggest to the more cynical among us that it was perhaps an afterthought? If it wasn’t, then that’s certainly the impression that’s being given. It’s unclear as to whether that last line was in the internal memo, although the inclusion of a twitter handle rather than a name might suggest something.

Whatever the reality, Lacy isn’t happy with the ‘apology’ or with Michael’s continued employment at Uber:

If anyone took this seriously, the second they heard about this, he would have been fired.

I don't see any reason to think the company is going to back down on this. This is not a company that backs down.

Maybe not, but the firm did at least blink yesterday by suddenly deciding it was a good idea to publish its privacy policies online  as a row raged on about the firm’s alleged abuse of its so-called ‘God View’ tool. As Buzzfeed revealed:

Early this November, one of the reporters of this story, Johana Bhuiyan, arrived to Uber’s New York headquarters in Long Island City for an interview with Josh Mohrer, the general manager of Uber New York. Stepping out of her vehicle — an Uber car — she found Mohrer waiting for her. “There you are,” he said, holding his iPhone and gesturing at it. “I was tracking you.”

If I were advising Uber BTW - and thank heavens I’m not - I’d suggest another look at Uber’s social media policies for employees. Buzzfeed - which is all over this story and doing a great job - also published a tweet from Mohrer which was posted shortly after Kalanick’s opus magnus:

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This tweet mysteriously vanished shortly afterwards, which was probably just as well on a scale of ‘unhelpful’ to ‘WTF?!?!?’.

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Zena Martin

A bit of media outreach training wouldn't go amiss. The so-called 'charm offensive' that sparked this latest crisis is a classic case of setting out on a journey without a map. As Zena Martin, a global PR and communications consultant, puts it:

The recent PR gaffes, made by Uber Executives, begs the question whether any of them has been properly media trained.

Firstly, one should never 'assume' that a conversation with a journalist is off the record.

Secondly, allegedly intimidating or manipulating journalists is not only a dangerous game, but it is also highly unethical.

My advice would be to get all of the Executives properly media trained by the most highly respected journalists(s) in the world, and then, proactively and transparently work very hard to re-establish trust with journalists, customers and the wider business community.

My take

An uber-mess.

The big problem for Uber is that all this fuss comes at a time when it’s got its begging bowl out for funding, looking apparently for another $1 billion.

Questions have already been aired in the mainstream media and the blogosphere about the knock-on reputational impact on potential investors if they back Uber in its current ethically-questioned state.

Sadly for Silicon Valley, SFGate doesn’t reckon it matters, with Lacy quoted as saying:

It’s clear the investors aren’t acting…The investors are either too scared to act, or feel like it will upset their standing in the company and their equity stakes are just worth too much.

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