Revolutionary Measures

Uber and PR – how not to handle the media

There are a lot of jobs I wouldn’t want in PR – helping North Korean leader Kim Jong-un or promoting cigarette companies. But head of PR at lift-sharing company Uber has catapulted itself to the top (or should that be bottom) of my list.

London anti-Uber taxi protest June 11 2014 by David Holt via Flickr

London anti-Uber taxi protest June 11 2014 by David Holt via Flickr

Any disruptive tech company is going to hit the headlines, but here are some of the stories that the aforementioned head of PR has had to deal with:

  • Upset cab drivers across the globe, angry with its business model, sparking protests, riots, and bans in countries such as Germany (though some restrictions have now been lifted).
  • Consumer complaints about its practice of charging more at peak times.
  • Taking out full page ads plugging the service on the same day that a mass demonstration of London cabbies brought the City to a halt.
  • Claims by rivals such as Hailo that it tried to squeeze out potential investors in its service.
  • Accusations of dirty tricks, such as getting its employees to book, then cancel rides with competitor Lyft in order to waste driver time and company resources.
  • Safety concerns, focused on the lack of driver vetting at the company, with reports of female abductions and a lack of concern for passenger safety.

And now it faces charges that, at a private dinner attended by journalists, its senior vice president of business, Emil Michael mooted the idea of spending a million dollars to hire a team to dig up dirt on reporters that had written negatively about the company. He has since tried to retract the comments, and a spokesperson has helpfully pointed out that “these remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach.” CEO Travis Kalanick has also issued a rambling, multi-Tweet apology.

But aside from the cosmic stupidness of airing such views at a dinner attended by journalists (and showing that, yet again, there’s no such thing as off the record comments), Uber needs to understand that few things bring journalists together more than an attack on one or more of their number. Not only has the row sparked fresh bad press, but it will have also impacted how journalists see them. And that’s not as the plucky David against the Goliath of the global taxi industry (as Kalanick claims they are), but as a playground bully trying to buy its way to success. More Jerktech than technology leader.

So what would my advice be to the PR team at Uber? To start with, realise you aren’t in a war and everyone isn’t automatically out to get you. Be more open and take on board criticisms and start a dialogue rather than using heavy artillery. If your service and approach are innovative enough you don’t need to bully the opposition so blatantly, risking bad feeling from your customers and the wider world. Essentially, stop acting like a stroppy teenager and grow up. And, above all, never try and threaten a journalist, whatever the circumstances.

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November 19, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Startup | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments