The past couple of months has seen a spate of stories highlighting how poor cultures can be toxic to brands and organisations. Uber has been particularly in the spotlight – with allegations of sexism from female engineers through to a rant from its CEO Travis Kalanick against one of its own drivers. New company president Jeff Jones left after six months, saying “The beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.” Only this week allegations have surfaced of senior management (including Kalanick) visiting an escort/karaoke bar in South Korea. The story came out when Kalanick’s ex-girlfriend, part of the party, alleged that she was pressurised to say she ‘had a good time’ at the bar.
Uber is not alone. The environment at British Cycling has been described by some athletes as operating through “a culture of fear”; misselling scandals at banks, such as around PPI, have been linked to poor cultural control; while Amazon and Sports Direct have both been accused of exploiting workers. In all cases it seems that a blind eye has been turned to how things were done, provided that overall objectives, such as company growth or Olympic medals, were delivered.
What has this got to do with marketing and communications? Essentially, when stories hit the media, it has to attempt to defend the (often) indefensible and then try and rebuild corporate reputation. All scheduled marketing plans have to be put on hold, with every effort focused on dealing with a growing number of allegations.
That’s why I believe marketing needs to step up and be more involved in guiding and monitoring corporate culture, ensuring that it has early warning of any minor issues so that they can be dealt with before they develop further. This isn’t about covering up bad behaviour – more ensuring that it doesn’t happen in the first place. There’s no point investing in huge advertising and PR campaigns that aim to demonstrate corporate strength, when a poor culture undermines everything you do or say. Marketing can exist in its own bubble, particularly in large companies, so that the department doesn’t see what goes in other parts of the organisation, leading to a false confidence that everything is going well. Therefore, it is vital to break out of this bubble and find out what is happening across the business.
Obviously marketing shouldn’t be responsible for culture alone. HR, internal communications, and senior management all need to help set the standards for “how things are done around here”, with regular checks that everyone understands what is expected of them, and their behaviour. Marketing is normally at the frontline of building a brand’s reputation, so it needs to have greater knowledge of what is going on. Otherwise it can’t ensure that the organisation is not tacitly or knowingly encouraging bad, unethical or illegal behaviour, potentially harming staff or customers and storing up major issues for the future. Marketing therefore needs to get a handle on culture if it is to do its job properly, whatever type of organisation you work in.
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.
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.