UberBy Gini Dietrich

Yesterday I spoke at the PRSA Chicago monthly luncheon.

It was awesome because I was in my own hometown (yay!) and I was among my peeps.

There is nothing like speaking to a room full of people who understand your language. You’re in PR? I totally know what you do every day.

Some people in the room even knew what the big, green Bacon’s books were!

After I finished, Rob Biesenbach and I were commiserating over the latest Uber issues.

Having just read how they’re (again) acting out against women, I said I thought this was a business/operations issue, not a PR issue.

He asked if I’d yet read about the research they are doing to “dig up dirt” on prominent journalists. I said I’d seen the headline and had it bookmarked, but hadn’t read the article yet.

Well, I’m here to tell you I have now read the article.

And, still, I think it’s a business issue. No amount of PR can fix this.

What is Uber?

Uber is a smartphone app that allows you to hail a cab from the safety and comfort of your home, office, hotel, airport, or any other location.

It’s a beautiful thing, particularly if you live in a big city or travel to one. The app holds your credit card information so all you have to do is get out of the car when you arrive at your destination. There is no haggling over why you don’t have any cash and being uncomfortable as they mutter under their breath about how much they hate you for wanting to use a credit card.

Last Thursday around 10 p.m., when I arrived at O’Hare after sitting on the tarmac for three hours, the cab line was about 90 minutes long. I could have taken the El, but then there is the issue of getting across town (which the El does not do in my neighborhood) in a cab… and typically, at that time of night, they’re hard to find in that spot.

So I pulled out my phone, swiped my Uber app, hailed a cab, and was assigned a driver. Andy called me to say he was in the staging area, but that because it was so cold, I should stay inside. He called as he was pulling up so I could scurry out and not have to wait in the cold.

It’s also great when you’re traveling because you don’t have to worry about how you’ll get places. You just click the app and voila! A car arrives to safely take you to your destination.

(And, if you’re notorious for leaving stuff in the cab like I know some of you are, you have the driver’s information in your phone so you can quickly retrieve it. Unless it is your phone, in which case, the driver has to get it back to you.)

About three weeks ago, Hailo (an Uber competitor) left North America, citing costs and competition.

So now there really is only Uber (I guess there is also Lyft, but I’ve never had any luck finding a car through them when I need one).

This clearly is only an issue for big cities, where cabs are used frequently, but I have to say, I’ve thought long and hard about what to do with this company, seeing how convenient it is for me and, really, how much more safe I feel in an Uber car than a regular cab.

How Not to Win Friends and Influence Others

The latest scandal out of the company is that they want to hire opposition research (just like you would if you were running for office) to dig up dirt on journalists.

A senior executive at Uber suggested that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media — and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company. The executive, Emil Michael, made the comments in a conversation he later said he believed was off the record.

Over dinner, he outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine.

That female journalist is Sarah Lacy, the founder and editor-in-chief of PandoDaily. And Emil Michael clearly has never been taught that there is no such thing as “off the record.”

Sarah wrote about a month ago that she was deleting her Uber app after it appeared the company was working with a French escort service.

I don’t know how many more signals we need that the company simply doesn’t respect us or prioritize our safety.

She called for a protest against the company and suggested people (particularly women) delete the app from their phones.

The company has been cited for celebrating womanizing, knowingly sabotaging Lyft (their biggest competitor), creating a culture of “boobers” (which means they have women “on call”), and using your personal data for evil.

No Amount of PR Can Change Uber

They’re not a good company. They’re not run by good people.

No amount of PR can change that.

Sure, the communications team has Travis Kalanick, the Uber CEO, on a “charm offensive,” wining and dining journalists in New York City.

Sure, they are doing what they can to help mend fences.

But, when the company has to hire political operative David Plouffe to work on Kalanick’s behavior—and when they have senior executives spouting off during these dinners about hiring opposition researchers—something at the company needs to change.

If I worked as their agency or inside the organization, here is what I would recommend to the board:

  • Kalanick needs to resign.
  • The entire executive team should be re-evaluated. If there is any risk of any of them misbehaving, they should be replaced.
  • A new CEO should be hired immediately—and his or her number one job should be to meet in person with Sarah Lacy to apologize profusely and to find ways to work together. And then go personally to visit with top-tier journalists, no matter how long it takes.
  • They should hire an expensive and highly regarded media training organization to teach its executives that nothing is ever off the record, and how to behave in the company of other human beings.

And then I would tender my resignation.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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