Experts: Uber smart to keep mum after driver arrested for Kalamazoo shooting spree

If the ride-hailing service proactively communicates about its background checks or suggests how it could improve them, it risks looking defensive or like it has a problem with its safety procedures.

SAN FRANCISCO: Although the man who allegedly killed six people in western Michigan in a Saturday night shooting spree was an Uber driver, crisis experts say the company had nothing to do with the incident and could not have prevented it. Therefore, they recommend the company keep its response on the matter to a minimum.

Uber said driver Jason Dalton, who appeared in a Michigan court on Monday, passed background checks. The ride-hailing service issued a short statement from its chief security officer on Sunday. It also tweeted a link to the statement.  

Melissa Arnoff, SVP at Levick, said that although Uber’s statement might not feel like "enough," the company is right to keep its response short and focused on the victims. Dalton’s alleged crimes and his job as an Uber driver are unrelated, so the company would risk further linking itself to the shootings by bringing up the incident too much, she said.

"The fact that [the alleged shooter’s] Uber driver status is an interesting storyline but unrelated to the actual crimes is why Uber needs to stay out of it as much as it can," said Arnoff. "They did the right thing by expressing their grief for the victims and that they are working with the police to help with the investigation. But beyond that, what can they really say?"

If Uber proactively communicates about its background-check system or suggests how it could improve the process, the company would risk looking defensive or like it has a problem with its safety procedures in the first place, Arnoff noted. She added that every background-check system has its limits.

"Without knowing the motive or much more about the driver, it is hard to speculate on whether there was anything any background check could have caught or if this was just a totally random, though incredibly tragic, incident," said Arnoff. "This was a freak incident that couldn’t have been prevented with the systems that currently exist – not just within Uber, but period." 

However, if concerned customers contact Uber directly to ask for details about its background-check procedures, the company should respond, Arnoff said.

In addition, it should avoid taking a stand on issues such as gun violence and mental health, which are areas outside of Uber’s business focus, noted Arnoff.

"Because the range of people who use Uber are going to have such different political views [on gun violence and mental health], I don’t know that they want to take a stand as a company with the way their workforce is set up," she added. "There is no way every Uber driver will be aligned with what Uber might say in a corporate statement about gun violence and mental health."

Authorities charged Dalton on Monday with six counts of murder, two counts of assault with intent to commit murder, and eight firearms charges. According to reports, Dalton gunned down victims at random and picked up passengers for Uber in between shootings. He did not shoot any of his passengers.

Evan Danckwerth, a private markets analyst at PrivCo, said this incident will hurt Uber’s brand in the short-term, but it should have no hindrance on the growth of the company’s value. He added that Uber has come back from other negative situations.

The shooting spree could actually be an opportunity for Uber to "restart" its PR by pushing the company to provide "better" information on its drivers to customers, Danckwerth said.

The shooting spree also has the potential to affect the brands of competitors such as Lyft, Gett, and Via, and might harm them even more than Uber, says Danckwerth.

"Uber has active lobbying council in a number of different states and globally," he explains. "Lyft doesn’t have the kind of power and PR Uber does; a crisis like this sometimes hurts the little guys a little bit more."

Arnoff said Uber will likely be under scrutiny for a while and the Kalamazoo crisis will bring up another wave of stories about other crimes that drivers have been accused of committing.

"What they need to do is keep finding positive things to talk about," she said. "Give this the respect and importance it deserves, but this could have been anyone."

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