Dinner party, bar and social media chat has echoed for a year or so with many thousands of cab customers praising Uber as the wondrous new alternative to expensive black taxis and unreliable mini-cabs.
However, the company’s PR teams are now frantically trying to dampen down increasingly out of control bushfires of damaging media coverage in major business and national publications in the US, UK and several other countries worldwide.
Buzzfeed, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Forbes, Huffington Post, Time, Daily Mail, the Independent, The Times and the New York Times are just some of those who have been fanning the flames with fiercely negative views on the issues.
The matches that set alight the dry tinder to start these conflagrations have been struck by not one but several of the company’s senior executives including the CEO, the senior vice president for business and the head of Uber New York – all with different comments or actions, and all within the last few weeks.
Emil Michael, the senior vice president for business seems to have started his blaze with a gallon of petrol. At a high level PR dinner in New York attended by many leading editors, according to BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, 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 who has criticized the company.”
“Over dinner Michael 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.”
Michael was particularly focused on one journalist, Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, a sometimes combative voice inside the industry. Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.
When challenged about the damage this plan could cause to Uber, Michael responded: “Nobody would know it was us.”
That was apparently what Richard Nixon thought about his use of private investigators during the Watergate affair….
Many people such as Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, the Dowler family, other members of Hacked Off and victims of scandalous journalism everywhere may identify with the notion of giving “the media a taste of its own medicine.” but this is clearly taking the idea far too far while at the same time abusing privately held data without permission.
This story has not only been viewed on line by nearly 700,000 readers so far but, more significantly, has been recounted, debated and magnified by columnists worldwide.
Chanelle Bessette on Forbes.com asks “Does Uber even deserve or trust?” before giving several examples that would lead most readers concerned about its potential breaches of data privacy to answer No!
Questions are now being asked in the Senate about this.
Jenni Russell in The Times wrote, within a half page column on Emil Michael’s threats,:.
“The implications of this are horrifying. At its highest levels Uber doesn’t accept that journalistic scrutiny of its practices is legitimate. It is willing to be underhand and devious. And it is clearly prepared to use information it holds on customers’ movements… as weapons against them.” She ends with “Cancel your app now.”
In the New York Times, the headline was also To Delete or Not to Delete: That’s the Uber Question” reporting that many people are deleting it from their phones.
So, if losing the business of many thousands of customers from this episode was not enough, in the last few days, CEO Travis Kalanick has, as reported in the Mail Online,drawn gasps from Goldman Sachs bankers at a dinner in Las Vegas by insensitivelycomparing his problems with authorities in Las Vegas with those faced by anti-police brutality demonstrators in Ferguson…. : a remarkably inappropriate analogy.
From a PR perspective, It makes the task of managing UKIP’s ever inconsistent media relations pronouncements seem like a dream job!
The Uber PR teams will certainly being hoping for, praying for and searching for good news somewhere as they try to repair the damage to the company’s reputation and media credibility.