Uber is at a crossroads and must rethink its culture and public perception

Uber is at a crossroads and must rethink its culture and public perception

Another day, another scandal at Uber HQ.

As if fighting legislative battles in courts around the world wasn’t time-consuming enough, the online taxi firm is increasingly using resources dousing the flames caused by disgruntled cabbies, hacked-off customers, and now its own execs.

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The latest debacle from the Uber circus emanates from Emil Michael, a senior executive Uber brought on board from Klout last year. During a dinner last week that included a journalist guest from BuzzFeed, Michael made some startling comments.

The general gist of the chat was that he wanted to hire “opposition researchers” to help fight negative media.

Essentially, they’d look at critical journalists’ personal lives and families, and “give the media a taste of its own medicine,” according to BuzzFeed’s report. One journalist in particular was singled out – Pando’s Sarah Lacy recently wrote a column about the ‘asshole culture’ at Uber, adding she had deleted the app from her phone.

While the dinner-table conversation was apparently intended as a private, informal ‘off-the-record’ discussion, according to Uber, the comments are now about as public as they could be, with many vowing to delete Uber for good.

Of course, Uber has apologized, kind of, as there wasn’t really any way it could sidestep the ensuing criticism.

“The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner — borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for — do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach. They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them.”

A spokesperson followed this up by saying that “oppo research” isn’t on its agenda for journalists, and isn’t targeting Sarah Lacy’s private life.

The thing is, this probably is true. Uber probably isn’t actively going to start digging the dirt on its critics as a way of payback, despite any other misgivings you may have about the company. But in many ways, it doesn’t really matter.

‘Asshole culture’

Even if Michael’s comment was made after a few-too-many sherries during an informal, heated debate centered on Uber’s media coverage, the fact that a senior Uber executive was even thinking in those terms isn’t good. And it does lend credence to the so-called ‘asshole culture’ Lacy alluded to in her original piece on Pando.

But another interesting tidbit emerged from BuzzFeed’s report, almost as an after thought, and was rather striking in its significance. When pressed on whether Uber accesses journalists’ travel logs to garner data of their activities, the Uber spokesperson flatly denied that they do. She said:

“Any such activity would be clear violations of our privacy and data access policies. Access to and use of data is permitted only for legitimate business purposes. These policies apply to all employees. We regularly monitor and audit that access.”

That’s heartening to hear, but it does serve as a stark reminder of the wealth of data Uber can access regarding your whereabouts. However, the denial also contradicts BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, who claims Uber accessed the personal profile of another BuzzFeed reporter during a discussion on Uber policies. Without permission to do so.

What now?

In what has become an increasingly competitive space, Uber knew it had to be aggressive to get to where it is now. Fresh from a $1.2 billion funding round, the service is now available in hundreds of cities spread across almost 50 countries.

To say Uber has won the online taxi war may be a little bit premature, but only a little. Its astronomical growth and financial clout recently led to Hailo unfurling the white flag on its own American adventure, with the Hailo Chairman saying: “Uber can spend money like drunken sailors.”

While some of Uber’s antics have arguably been necessary on its way to the top, from a market-disruption perspective, it has also rightfully faced a lot of criticism on many fronts. Now though, Uber is probably too far in front in the race to win the hearts and minds of the taxi-loving public, it’s crazy that it still chooses to act in such a brazen manner.

There’s an argument that says there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and that is often true. Remember when Uber’s signups jumped by 850 percent in the wake of the London taxi driver protests in June? Well, the exact same thing happened in Germany too a few months later. Uber has worked the press brilliantly in recent times, using what could have been construed as ‘negative’ coverage to its advantage. But it’s hard to see how this latest snafu could ever be spun positively.

However, it’s also difficult to assess the extent of any PR damage so soon after the storm. Though the incident has broken from the confines of Twitter and tech blogs and made headlines in the mainstream media, Uber is ultimately a popular service with millions of travelers around the world. The long-term fallout is likely to be minimal for the company.

But Uber is at a crossroads. It’s no longer a fledgling startup battling the big guys – it now is one of the big guys, and it has to rethink its culture and public perception. Though Uber has millions of no-doubt happy customers, it has also made a lot of enemies, so anything it does moving forward will be scrutinized with a laser-beam intensity.

Update: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick went on a bit of a Twitter monologue following today’s news, condemning the Emil Michael’s comments as “terrible” and saying they “showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals.”

The CEO says he will do everything in his power to rebuild Uber’s trust, but that doesn’t look like it includes firing Emil:

You can follow the full set of tweets at Kalanick’s Twitter stream.

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