Uber Doesn’t Have a PR Problem–It Has a Corporate Culture Problem

As a public relations professional, I’m in a number of LinkedIn groups for PR/communications practitioners and every time a corporate scandal pops up, I see the inevitable posts about what the company could have done to avoid their problem or what they should do to get out of the mess.

Quite often, I feel like offering up a comment along the lines that in some cases there’s nothing to be done in some cases because some people/companies aren’t well-positioned to  project a positive public image or can’t be bothered to do so.

The latest flap over Uber and the comments of senior executive Emil Michael–who chose to opine at a well-attended dinner event last Friday night that it would be a neat idea for the company to hire an opposition research team to dig up dirt on journalists as a means of fighting negative press–exemplify this notion.  He suggested they could look into “your personal lives, your families” as a means of going after media critics.  The words seemed particularly targeted at reporter Sarah Lacy of PandoDaily who had accused the company of “sexism and misogyny” and previously included them in an “asshole roll call” of Silicon Valley companies.

Here is perhaps the most disturbing nugget of Ben Smith’s story on Buzzfeed’s which broke the story on Michael’s unique approach to PR strategy:

“Then he returned to the opposition research plan. Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.  

Michael at no point suggested that Uber has actually hired opposition researchers, or that it plans to. He cast it as something that would make sense, that the company would be justified in doing.”

Yeah, right.  Why come out and say you are actually doing something like that when simply threatening to do it and clearly stating you would have no problem doing it are probably good enough to do the trick in terms of making some reporters think twice before taking a shot at your company?

Let me just stop here for a second and offer up what should be a fairly obvious lesson to all the tough-talking execs out there who like to take their macho swagger out for a public trot every once in a blue moon.

If you or your company are being accused of frat-boy/bully boy tactics and it’s being suggested that you have a problem with how you treat women, a significant portion of your customer base, then maybe…just maybe…and remember, I’m only spitballing here…but maybe you should be a little less thin-skinned and not feel compelled to lash out a female reporter in a manner which pretty much confirms everything she said and turns a one-day story into an ongoing nightmare.

But if you are not capable of it, if your entire business model is based on a thuggish/”us against the world”/destroy our enemies” ethos, maybe there’s not a whole lot sensible PR people can do for you.

Just look at Uber’s response to the Buzzfeed story.  First, Michael tried to insist it was an off-the-record, private comment, even though it was made to a room full of people who apparently didn’t sign anything or offer a blood oath.  (As if the idea of breaking that supposed off-the-record code was somehow worse than what he actually said,  Priceless.)  Then they trotted out the guy who brought Ben Smith to the dinner, the USA Today‘s Michael Wolff, to say Smith hadn’t reported the words in their proper context.  Suffice to say, I don’t think Wolff’s attempt to gussy up Michael’s comments are very convincing, although I guess it does show the value of offering up free dinners to members of the media.

And then they hit the Trifecta of Stupid, when Ashton Kutcher hit Twitter to give his thumbs up to the idea of attacking “shady reporters” like Lacy.  Without bothering to mention he’s an investor in the company.  Yeah, thanks for weighing in, funny man.

It’s one thing to declare war on business competitors and do anything you can to wipe them out.  It happens in business all the time.  But taking that same approach with media people who don’t treat you with the fealty you feel you are entitled to is just plain stupid and symptomatic of a greater problem.

This “crush, kill, destroy” approach to business seems to be in Uber’s DNA and is clearly infecting their public relations.  Because when you say indefensible things in public, you need to take immediate action to fix the problem.  The weak string of Tweets from Uber’s CEO denouncing Michael’s remarks don’t cut it, especially since there is no indication he will in any way be punished for his remarks.  (OK, you don’t want to fire the guy because he’s indispensable?  How about a month off without pay to get his head around the fact that he can’t be stupid in public?)

Maybe Lacy was onto something.  Maybe the bad-boy culture of Uber has fostered a recklessness and arrogance that can’t be contained or simply targeted on the company’s competitors.  When a senior executive can talk about smearing reporters and suffer no consequences, there’s no way that attitude doesn’t work it’s way down the food chain.  Maybe the only thing that will change it is if enough people delete the Uber app from their phone, as Lacy did.  That may be the only kind of reckoning these folks understand.

And let me share one other wild thought.  In a roomful of media people, why was there only one reporter willing to call out Michael for his absurd and offensive comments?  Did they get the message he was sending and figure silence was better than incurring the wrath of Uber?  Or did they merely think it would be unseemly to bite the hand that fed them that night?

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