Uber crisis shows that even the best PR practices have their limitations
Uber’s case is not an ordinary PR disaster
On 7 December 2014, Uber driver Shiv Kumar Yadav raped a female passenger in Delhi. The news spread quickly. I panicked. I was in Delhi that day and had to reach the airport at 3 am on 8 December. When several attempts to book an alternate service failed, I booked an Uber.
Uber’s official response came quickly: "Safety is our #1 priority in India. Uber exclusively partners with registered for-hire drivers who have undergone the commercial licensing process, hold government issued IDs, state-issued permits, and carry full commercial insurance.We will continue to cooperate fully with law enforcement officials in their investigation to bring this crime to justice.”
I felt reassured and then asked my driver why his picture in the app didn’t look like him. He said something I couldn’t understand. I reached the airport safe and in time for my flight. That’s all I wanted.
A year later, Shiv Kumar Yadav was given a life sentence. Meanwhile, Uber’s business in India was growing fast. Worldwide, it was worth more than $ 70 billion. Uber went quickly from start-up to that. Six years.
The general impression among investors was that Uber had become so indispensable to customers that it could get away with murder. Or rape. Cut to 2017, and things have changed. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, stepped down this week under pressure from investors. The reasons are quite a few:
1. Sexual harassment complaints against company executives.
2. Potential legal trouble with Apple.
3. Legal trouble with Waymo, Google’s self-driving car.
4. Compromised transportation and safety regulations.
5. Using Greyball to fool law enforcement agencies.
6. A shouting match with an Uber driver.
7. High-profile exits from the company.
Even though Kalanick did the best he could when faced with criticism — apologised and said he needed help; one wonders if all this could have been handled better. When Susan Fowler’s Medium blog that accused Uber of being lax about sexual harassment went viral in February, Uber’s response to it was pretty good. In fact, it ticked all the boxes in the corporate PR manual.
1. Kalanick issued a strong statement against sexism. (“There can be absolutely no place for this kind of behaviour at Uber — and anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is okay will be fired.”)
2. Kalanick hired former Obama attorney general Eric Holder to investigate Fowler’s charges of sexism.
3. Board member Ariana Huffington got involved in the investigation.
4. Kalanick released statistics about diversity at Uber.
All the negative press and campaigns like #deleteuber, did cost the company millions of dollars, but the investors still had faith in Kalanick. And maybe, secretly Silicon Valley was happy with the way things were progressing. Uber’s success, despite its many faults, seemed to make a statement. Aggression and the willingness to succeed at any cost was acceptable to society in general. And PR was working.
Uber’s case though is not an ordinary PR disaster. Usually you have a decent company stuck in a situation because of a mishap, a serious but arbitrary problem with employees or a failed regulatory test. Remember Maggi and Dairy Milk? Uber has been flouting rules since the day it was born. The cost advantages that the company has over rivals are largely because of the use of non-commercial vehicles and all the money it saves by going around laws that require its cars and drivers to have commercial insurance, special drivers’ licences, vehicle inspections and many other requirements that make a business legitimate.
Also, if you get caught going to a karaoke and escort bar in Seoul, spy on rivals, underpay drivers, fire 20 employees after your sexual harassment investigation ends (technically, that should count as “taking action” but I guess people had to fault the company for keeping so many of these men on its rolls for so long), question rape victims and make sexist jokes at board meetings — there’s little even genius PR can do. Of course, Uber owned up. I mean, a lot of it was on YouTube, so they didn’t really have a choice. But it did little beyond that. It didn’t seem to be cleaning up its mess. Acknowledging that you’ve made a mistake is an important step. But after that you’ve got to show people that you’ve taken some action. With a business steeped in illegality and slogans like “always be hustlin”, “super-pumped” and “bold” — Uber was being too forthright about its lack of respect for the law.
Infact, Uber may have done well to follow Fowler’s format. A step-by-step account of what the company did after each accusation and what the results were. No emotion. Just facts. Well, their PR head Rachel Whetstone did quit in April. And things have gotten worse after that but hey, like a friend said to me, “Can good PR really save a really rotten company?" Well, we don’t know about rotten companies, but it definitely saves rotten individuals. Heard of that famous chap that shot a blackbuck?
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