Uber’s PR Problem

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Just a few short months after being publicly lauded for its kitten-delivering masterpiece, startup Uber is facing its most difficult PR battle to date.

A leak (though this is the kind of leak that companies want) revealed on Valleywag showed Uber’s impressive revenue growth. According to Valleywag, the company is raking in more than $200m in revenue and scaling its technology worldwide at a rapid pace. Tech bloggers speculated that Uber was aspiring to be more than just an app for people who need rides, aiming to be a lifestyle brand on par with behemoth Amazon.

David Becomes Goliath                                                                                                     

Once Uber revealed itself at the top of the podium, the target on its back grew larger. Uber was already in the crosshairs of taxi and regulatory commissions. And Uber did all of the right things to make itself an easy target.

Uber began taking big hits for its controversial surge pricing strategy. Users on Twitter complained en masse, posting photographic evidence of their outlandish fares with each new post topping the other. Instead of properly explaining or even attempting to assuage the outraged masses, Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick responded with derision for his customers. Kalanick vigorously defended surge pricing (the jury is still out on whether it has affected Uber’s user base) and pointed to the basic tenants of capitalism to support his business strategy. Just compare Kalanick’s response to criticism to Evernote’s Phil Libin’s. As the VentureBeat article states, Libin does PR right.

Then, the real tragedy happened. On New Year’s Eve, Uber driver Syed Muzzafar struck and killed 6-year old Sophia Liu and put her brother and her mother in the hospital. Muzzafar told police that he was working for Uber and searching for fares. The horrible death that could have easily been prevented became an unfortunate battle cry for the anti-Uber crowd (mostly made up of taxi companies). Uber responded in an equally unfortunate way.

Crisis Communications Fail                                                                                            

Uber did exactly what companies shouldn’t do when tragedy strikes: they put out incorrect information (which they later rectified), didn’t apologize or offer any resolution for users of the service. Instead, they began washing their hands of any association with Muzzafar. When the news reached Uber, they initially immediately denied that Muzzafar was even an Uber driver, news that turned out to be incorrect. Though they likely were not deliberately lying to the public, their statement was irresponsible as they later admitted that Muzzafar was a driver on the system. When the tragic news occurred, Uber should have expressed empathy and stated that they were investigating whether Muzzafar worked for them, instead of categorically denying it without the proper facts.

Uber then stuck to their company messaging by proclaiming themselves to be a technology provider only (which conflicts with their reported aspirations as a lifestyle brand) and distancing themselves as far as possible from any responsibility for the tragedy. Missing in all of this was an apology or any emotion for young Liu and her family.

Uber’s statement was teeming with veiled language and blatant obfuscation that few could gain any measure of satisfaction with their actions. Nor was an apology proffered for initially denying Muzzafar’s status with Uber. Uber displayed zero emotion for the preventable loss of a young girl’s life and the irreparable damage to her family. But should Uber have shown emotion?

Brands Are People                                                                                                                  

In the new age of social media, brands can’t hide behind cold, corporate facades. When Uber is doing things like delivering kittens for adoption to make your day better, or delivering ice cream and Christmas trees, then it is presenting itself as an emotional brand. Acting like a human would have made Uber’s repeated rejections of their own liability in Sophie Liu’s death go down better among its user base who could easily imagine themselves being struck down by an Uber driver and having Uber wash its hands so callously. Uber’s responses were so universally criticized that Nissan backed away from its association in a recent commercial. Even startup-friendly outlet PandoDaily began posting critical articles (Carmel Deamicis’s recent post on Uber’s lack of criminal background checks on drivers is great).

The broader implications for Uber, and the numerous startups that share its business model (Lyft, SideCar, Airbnb, et al), is liability. And liability equals money. Uber immediately relinquished any liability for the actions of the driver precisely to avoid paying the large sums of money many (including the Liu family) would argue Liu’s family deserves, money that the driver Muzzafar likely would not have. Whether his insurance would cover any claims due to his using his vehicle for commercial purposes remains to be seen. Shouldn’t a company like Uber that claims to be “everyone’s private driver” show some responsibility for the people who use it?

One could argue that Uber isn’t liable for her tragic death, and apologizing would implicate them. But a more humane response than their calculated denials would not have been misconstrued as liability, and would have shown that Uber cares about the many people who use their service, and those like Liu who are affected by it.

In the end, Uber blatantly put its profits before people, a move that will never endear a company to its public.

The Future’s Still Bright                                                                                                    

Can Uber bounce back? Absolutely (remember when everyone thought Netflix was dunzo?). But Uber will need to put its money where its heart is, and learn to say a simple word that goes a long way: Sorry. It’s a word that’s even more powerful than cuddly kittens.

San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim has posted information on donating to Liu’s family