Taxi protest jet-propels awareness of Uber and divides public opinion

Last week's blockade of central London by black-cab drivers has helped boost awareness of taxi app Uber but only a third of Londoners opposed the protest, according to research commissioned by PRWeek from YouGov.

Uber: Given exposure by the taxi protests
Uber: Given exposure by the taxi protests

The research, conducted almost a week after last Wednesday's gridlock, to a certain extent supports the theory that the protest backfired by raising the profile of one of the services the taxi drivers' association is trying to curtail:

What best reflects your view of Uber? London National
I was already aware of Uber before the protests 34% 16%
I am now aware of Uber following the protests 44% 47%
I am still not aware of Uber 17% 33%
Don't know 5% 5%

Weighted sample size

243 1,897

PRWeek can also reveal that just before the protest Uber brought in large PR agency Burson-Marsteller to help it take advantage of the attention as well as put across its side of the argument.

The agency, having successfully pitched for what is thought to be a longer-term, European brief, took over press handling from Westbourne Communications, which will continue to look after UK public affairs for Uber. 

PR agencies are also retained by one of the groups calling for greater regulation of smartphone apps, with the association for private hire drivers employing FleishmanHillard for PR and Hulf McRae for public affairs.

One figure with insight into Uber’s approach said concerted attempts were made to raise the company’s profile in the weeks leading up to the protest, with the media given access to both the company’s UK and Ireland general manager Jo Bertram and drivers who use the service.

"There were efforts to deliver a candid and head-on rebuttal to some of the mischief that had been made," they added.

On the day of protest Bertram called the participating Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) "stuck in the dark ages", while claiming an 850 per cent increase in sign-ups compared with the previous Wednesday.

This was possibly helped by the fact Uber deployed online advertising on the day, though it is not clear whether it did so the previous week.

Uber did not respond to requests for comment on the research and issues, while Burson-Marsteller and Westbourne Communications declined to comment.

In the less partisan view of London Communication Agency MD Johnny Popper, the protest was "ill-judged" and "provided Uber with more media coverage than it could ever have hoped to achieve on its own".

He added: "Do Londoners care about the technical definition of a meter? I doubt it."

However, the public is far from united in agreement with Bertram, according to PRWeek's poll:

Do you support or oppose the message of the protest? London National
Strongly support or tend to support 30% 34%
Strongly oppose or tend to oppose 34% 26%
Neither support nor oppose 27% 31%
Don't know 8% 9%

Weighted sample size

243 1,897

The taxi drivers' comms effort included engagement with media as diverse as CNN and LBC Radio on the day of the protest.

The poll evidences more support for the message of the protest than the way in which it was carried out:

Do you support or oppose the way the protest was carried out?
London National
Strongly support or tend to support 28% 28%
Strongly oppose or tend to oppose 33% 26%
Neither support nor oppose 28% 33%
Don't know 11% 13%

Weighted sample size

243 1,897

The data was described as "encouraging" by the chairman of the association for private hire drivers, which is also calling for tougher regulation of smartphone apps such as Uber, though it did not take part in the blockade. Steve Wright from the Licensed Private Hire Car Association added he expected Uber's messaging to "backfire" and that this was "only the end of the beginning" of the campaign for more regulation of smartphone apps.

Acknowledging that "not all aspects of the protest were quite clear", he said: "We will continue to engage with the public and set out the story factually."

Wright's counterpart at the black-cab drivers' body the London Taxi Drivers Association, general secretary Steve McNamara, also claimed the research was not necessarily bad news for his cause.

"It’s not about how many people are aware of Uber, it’s about those who use taxis and private hire cars on a regular basis," he said. "We took the view that the vast majority within this group were already aware of Uber and either using it or not. Our demo is unlikely to have altered these stats much."

McNamara, who recently warned there would be further demonstrations, claimed the protest was "never" about Uber but targeted Transport for London and had led to a "positive" meeting with London Mayor Boris Johnson the following day.

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