Uber – testing the limits of crisis communications

Just in case you missed it, 2017 has been a terrible year for Uber so far.

In January, the company was caught in the cross-hairs of the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration, and spectacularly mishandled the public’s widespread revolt against the order.

There was a tone-deaf decision to switch off airport surge pricing as New York City taxi drivers protested the order, prompting accusations of strikebreaking.

CEO Travis Kalanick then offered a clunky explanation for retaining Uber’s place on Trump’s Business Advisory Council, only to reverse that decision a few days later.

In response, the #DeleteUber campaign spread like wildfire, with over 200,000 customers deleting their accounts in just a few days.

Just as the dust settled on these crises, the company found itself mired in another one. A week and a half ago, a former engineer at Uber – Susan Fowler – published a blog describing her nightmare-like experience at the company. It made for painful reading, describing in detail a toxic culture of sexism, hyper-aggressiveness, lack of principles, and a complete absence of accountability and leadership.

As someone who works frequently with clients on crisis communication, it has been illuminating to watch this situation unfold and observe Uber’s response. And today, I want to share my thoughts on how the most valuable startup in the world has become the poster child for everything wrong with startup culture.

Let’s start with a step back, and look at Fowler’s allegations in isolation. It isn’t necessarily newsworthy for an ex-employee, particularly one who had a poor experience, to blog about their frustrations. In most cases, companies tend to either dispute, deny or just ignore the story, so it gains very little media traction. In this case, Fowler’s blog was picked up by all major news outlets immediately, and trended swiftly on social media channels.

The question is, why?

Fowler’s story was certainly well-written, detailed and referenced screen grabs of the alleged conversations – in short, she had evidence to support her allegations. But more telling was the widespread willingness by press and public alike to believe her version of events. Uber’s reputation has been so sullied by poor advertising, arrogant comments, persistent rumors and questionable business practices that it was all too easy to assume Fowler’s story was accurate.

Uber has in many ways prided itself on its aggressive takedown of regulators, taxi unions and anyone else who stands in the way of growth. And let’s be clear, their service has improved many people’s lives. However, this aggression seemed to seep into their narrative as a company. For example, a senior executive (who is still with Uber) suggested “digging up dirt” on a female reporter who criticized the company. The company’s responses to alleged attacks on customers by drivers were inadequate to say the least. And then there was the company’s expensive legal battle to ensure Uber drivers are not viewed as employees who would be entitled to benefits.

Along the way, Uber became the company that some love to hate. Its failure to grasp the consequences of that perception is ultimately what led to the crisis they find themselves in today.

After Fowler posted her blog, the floodgates opened. The New York Times ran a piece voicing similar stories from over 30 other employees; even early investors in the company have now publicly condemned Uber.

But equally interesting is Uber’s flawed response to the crisis. It moved swiftly, for sure, but it tapped a board member (Arianna Huffington) and a high-profile internal lobbyist (Eric Holder) as its first line of defense. These are not smart choices. Huffington has also been accused of running toxic workplaces in the past. And despite a solid history in his government roles, Holder has been working for Uber for the past year. So it amounts to an inside job.

Huffington was also positioned as the de facto spokesperson for the company on the crisis. Kalanick’s own reputation is so undermined, and it is so widely assumed he tacitly endorsed the failures in question, that he has effectively been replaced as the company representative – a perilous position for a CEO to be in.

Make no mistake, it is going to be tough for Uber to right this ship. Right now, the company is facing a tsunami of bad publicity where every step they take, no matter how well-meaning, is subject to misinterpretation. A message on their app in response to users who delete it referenced the Fowler situation – a message some are taking as efforts by the company to encourage her harassment.

The fact that a seemingly small step to show they are listening to customer concerns is openly interpreted as yet another attack on women speaks volumes and exemplifies how disdainfully people view the company.

And in the last 48 hours alone the crisis has only grown as video footage emerged of Kalanick in a heated argument with an Uber driver about company business practices and treatment of drivers.

From a crisis communication perspective, this needs to be a defining moment in the company’s history, the tipping point where Uber moves from unwieldly startup to well-managed company. Employees who cannot make the shift or refuse to change styles must be fired. A transparent commitment to diversity needs to be put in place.

It may even be necessary for senior executives to be removed to demonstrate that no one in the company is immune from repercussions. Active investors may even ask for Kalanick to step aside.

Uber needs to heed the lessons from this tumultuous experience, and stop hoping its $65 billion valuation will somehow protect it from the consequences. The #DeleteUber campaign was a stark reminder that the company just provides a service, and customers have other options. Nobody is immune from the vagaries of a disgruntled public – not even the richest pre-IPO startup in the world.