Mistakes Were Made: The Ubergate Story

Nov 18, 2014 Anne Baker

One place it’s awesome to be right now:  Lyft HQ.

Uber Senior Vice President Emil Michael, however, is not having such a good day. Last night, BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith broke news that  Uber Senior Vice President Emil Michael, “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 (PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy), who has criticized the company.”

The tech press is up in arms, #deleteuber is quickly gaining traction on Twitter, and the company in question is currently estimated to be worth $18 billion. There’s a lot on the line, to say the least. But aside from being a great Water Cooler talking point, there are several PR lessons to take away from this situation. Here are three:

  1. You are NEVER off the record – In the words of Taylor Swift, like ever. Even if you are, you aren’t. Ben Smith is a well-respected journalist. There are reports that he was not told the dinner was off the record but even if it was, such statements in a public setting could easily leak and be repeated.  Here’s a rule of thumb:  if you don’t want to see it on the internet, don’t say it.
  2.  Journalists are protective of their own – When the Smith story broke last night, reporters at PandoDaily blew up my news feed with their outrage. But it wasn’t just them – pretty soon it was the folks at The Information, Wall Street Journal, Re/Code, USA Today and beyond. By 7 a.m. this morning, it seemed like every major player in the tech journalism community had weighed in. These are all outlets that compete daily for scoops. But they are a community, and when they feel one member is attacked, they will rally around her. Having a problem with one prominent reporter can very quickly escalate to a problem with reporters writ large. And that is never a good thing.
  3.  Don’t wait for the crisis – The issue Uber is having now is that Michael’s remarks aren’t perceived as the thoughts of one exec who went way off the reservation. This afternoon’s myriad think pieces point to a sense of larger dysfunction within the company (“The apology and promises may well have been too little too late, especially given Uber’s reputation as a bully,” writes Vanity Fair). Journalists have been quick to reference the time Uber CEO Travis Kalanick referred to the company as “Boober” for all the ladies it was helping him get as well as the “sexy French drivers” incident. This is an illustration of how important it is to establish relationships with the media before things go south. If journalists know and feel comfortable with your CEO, they’re more likely to hear you out in a time of crisis. If you let bad news sit, it accumulates, making really bad news all the worse.

There’s no doubt that the whole thing is miserable. Lyft surely noticed a bump in downloads today as many promised over Twitter to start using its perceived cuter, friendlier, mustachioed service in favor of Uber. This isn’t just another “whoops” Uber can easily shrug off. What Uber needs to do now is launch a full court press. Kalanick needs to meet with reporters, make himself available for taped interviews and demonstrate that Uber is committed to outgrowing its “bad boy” image.

And all of the negative press aside, the reality is this – Uber is a highly valuable service that has revolutionized urban transportation. It’s not going away. On the contrary:  users love it, and if nothing else surfaces to extend the negative news cycle, memory in the age of 24-hour news cycles and Twitter is very short. These will work to Uber’s benefit. However, at the end of the day, public perception matters. It can’t be ignored and must be addressed in a constructive way.


Topics: Media Relations, Public Relations
Anne Baker

For Anne, public relations is all about the storytelling. She considers her clients partners on a shared mission to craft the strongest narratives and get those narratives in front of the right people. Anne was the first Inkhouse employee in San Francisco and knows all too well the late nights and scrappiness required to get a start-up off the ground. Anne approaches public relations with a strong bias towards execution, doing whatever it takes to get the job done and provide strategic insight.

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