How Uber drove circles around New York City's mayor

Uber was hailed as the winner after a fierce public affairs battle against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had moved to cap the number of vehicles it could operate in the city.

For the past week, Uber and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio fought a pitched battle over City Hall’s plan to cap the number of vehicles operated by the company within the city limits.

The ride-hailing service threw the kitchen sink at de Blasio in a multifaceted public affairs campaign that included digital and paid TV advertising, online petitions, and celebrity support to rally its base. On Wednesday, de Blasio said he was temporarily dropping his push to cap the number of Ubers in New York.

Though the mayor’s office did force concessions, the agreement played as a resounding victory in the media for Uber.

Experts tell PRWeek that the San Francisco-based company held a number of advantages over City Hall, and used the upper hand skillfully to strike a favorable deal.

"With very few exceptions, Uber is going to win this little political game here. The reason is because they’re better," says Jason Mandell, co-founder of LaunchSquad. "I look at it the same way I look at electric cars or solar energy – eventually, the old way is going to die because it’s inferior."

The mayor’s office said on Wednesday that it was delaying a City Council vote that could have installed a 1% cap on Uber’s growth in New York while the city conducted a year-long study. Uber says it will make more vehicles handicapped-accessible and turn over data to the city. Both sides issued statements on Wednesday hailing the agreement.

However, Mandell says de Blasio is "just delaying the inevitable."

"He knows everything that I’m saying. He’s a politician," he adds, noting that there is probably not a dominant future for the yellow cab. "They don’t offer as good as a service…At the end of the day, it’s a market economy."

Calls and emails to the mayor's press office seeking comment were not returned. The mayor did write a guest op-ed in the Daily News saying he was trying to keep New Yorkers safe and make sure workers are treated fairly.

Peter Himler, founder and principal of Flatiron Communications, says Uber has the upper hand for many reasons. One is David Plouffe, chief adviser and board member at the company, who managed President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Himler adds that Plouffe has been "very effective" in the private sector role.

Many observers are also pointing out that Uber threw its substantial war chest behind the effort.

"Uber has been very aggressive, very proactive in the way they’re addressing Mayor de Blasio’s efforts to curtail that service in New York City," says Himler. He points out that an update to Uber’s app allowed users to select "de Blasio" instead of a black car to see how much slower the service would be under the proposed limitations.

The company kept raining blows on the mayor, who Himler says "is not very well-liked in New York, especially among Uber’s clientele." The company ran TV ads painting de Blasio as being in the pocket of the taxi industry. They also emphasized that Uber drivers serve neighborhoods often ignored by taxi drivers.

He adds that there was a "visceral reaction" by the tech-savvy public in New York that wants the startup economy to thrive.

"There’s this fact out there that taints Mayor de Blasio’s efforts as [not being for] the greater good," says Himler. "From a PR perspective, de Blasio is losing."

While de Blasio was out of the country, Uber kept its benefits on consumers’ minds via their inboxes, offering incentives like $10 uberPool rides in Manhattan and noting its anti-congestion efforts. "Take one million cars off the road in New York City," one email reads.

Before the deal was reached, celebrities such as model Kate Upton and actor (and early Uber investor) Ashton Kutcher tweeted in support of Uber.

The company released an evenly worded statement on Wednesday saluting the agreement.

"We are pleased new drivers will continue to be free to join the for-hire industry and partner with Uber," the company’s New York City GM, Josh Mohrer, said in a statement. "Together, we can build an even better, more reliable transportation system. This is great news for all New Yorkers, including Uber riders and drivers."

Communications experts who spoke with PRWeek say Uber has smartly emphasized its quality of service.

"When I look at who’s going to win this, at the end of the day, I believe the winner should be the customer," John Lovallo, chair of the corporate reputation practice and the financial practice at Levick, said before the deal was reached. "Uber provides that better than the entrenched, unionized [taxis]."

He adds that Uber has "matured" over time, learning from past crises, noting that now it is "clearly and effectively communicating its position."

"It’s not just about making money," he says. "It’s about how do you run it [and] communicate it more professionally."

Only one part of Uber’s global fight
While the company came out on top relatively quickly in New York City, it has its share of resistance around the world, as illustrated by this April map from Business Insider.

Mandell says it is critical for Uber to "become a benevolent company," because while making the case of "we’re going to win anyway" is effective, it should also build a brand with customers who will become advocates for the company.

"I don’t think it’s too late for them to redefine themselves in a more social good lens," says Himler, though he adds that could be a challenge if venture capitalists are "still pulling the strings."

Had Uber been capped by the mayor, it could have had a negative effect on other ride-sharing companies such as Lyft, which also supported the deal, he adds.

"This is good news for consumers and drivers, and we thank the City Council for listening to our concerns about removing carpooling options, which we see as part of the solution to traffic congestion," says Lyft public affairs director David Mack, in a statement. "We will continue working together with the City Council and the [Taxi and Limousine Commission] to build a more sustainable future for New York."

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