8 crisis wranglers on what Uber should do next

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down Tuesday night after months of crisis for the ride-hailing company. PRWeek asked 8 crisis experts about what the world's most valuable startup must do next to fix its reputation.

Sandy Lish, principal and cofounder, The Castle Group
Uber needs to communicate consistently and clearly with its many stakeholders – investors, employees, its vast network of drivers, and, of course, its customers. The company must reassure its audiences that this is not a crisis; it’s a transition, not uncommon to startups, albeit, more public than most. Uber needs to demonstrate that there is a competent, professional team managing the company and that the service so many have come to rely on will not be disrupted. They must continue to demonstrate transparency as the company moves through this period and, eventually, appoint a CEO. This will serve as an opportunity to change the company’s culture and reshape the brand. Internally, the company needs to tune out the noise and focus on what they do best.

Gary Sheffer, senior corporate strategist, Weber Shandwick
Disruption and entrepreneurship alone are not enough to build a great company and protect its public license to do business. In fast-growth companies, sometimes the idea and its execution—and there is a great idea at the center of Uber—moves so fast that it can get ahead of building a "complete" company. That is Uber's most important job: finish the company. This includes building a culture based on strong and admirable values and a purpose that goes beyond financial numbers. Uber must act on a common understanding among its people of what role it wants to play in society and, ultimately, what value it delivers to people. In doing so, Uber should sustain the energizing spirit of disruption that has brought it so far, so fast. Uber has changed transportation forever. It should keep that flame alive while building a more complete, and therefore trustworthy, enterprise.

Chris Nelson, partner and crisis lead for the Americas, FleishmanHillard
Those now in charge should be bold because the company has an opportunity to put the past behind it, but that opportunity won’t last long. The company’s public narrative has depicted an organization with internal cultural problems, a poor compliance structure, and a lack of overall professionalism commensurate with Uber’s valuation. The operating results, whether or not they are in any way related, seem to validate that perspective. With Kalanick’s departure, Uber has a natural pivot point in the narrative it can use to its advantage. New leadership in companies facing such negative storylines have the opportunity to drive rapid change. They can invest in improving systems, such as global compliance. They have a better chance at rapidly reshaping the internal culture to generate increased engagement from employees and improved focus on business results. Instituting public-facing changes will be crucial to shaping Uber’s public narrative going forward.

Robyn Hannah, senior director, global communications, Dynamic Signal
Today’s consumers are loyal to companies with whom they feel a shared set of values. It’s business critical that Uber outline, foster, and proliferate a strong sense of equality and inclusiveness across the organization- not forgetting their front line: drivers. The very recent addition of a tip option is a start, but there seems to be a significant gap in how they communicate with and prioritize the importance and the contributions of these employees who spend the most direct time with their customers. Uber needs to very directly, and authentically acknowledge that the sweeping changes were long overdue, apologize to the community of drivers and riders, and outline a public plan for improvement to which they are willing to be held accountable.

Arik Ben-Zvi, MD, Glover Park Group
[Uber should] work urgently to create a new and better conversation. It will take months or years for new leadership to come in and fix the cultural challenges that created the current PR nightmare. But the company cannot afford to allow its reputation to continue to erode while awaiting those fixes. Instead, act boldly now on other fronts. Roll out a big initiative to improve driver satisfaction (maybe something to address concerns on healthcare or benefits). Set ambitious goals for emission measurement and reduction across the fleet. Roll out a blockbuster new philanthropic commitment. Anything to remind people that for all its flaws, Uber is a massive enterprise that has a big role to play in shaping the future, and that it can be a force for good at scale. It won’t make the PR challenges go away, but it will at least start to turn the tide.

John Marino, COO and MD, Marino
[This week’s] announcement does not come as a huge surprise given the frequency and magnitude of missteps over the past year. As companies like Uber, which has truly revolutionized the world, go from media darling to media target, public scrutiny will continue to play a role in its future. This was a reactive response, so the company’s next steps need to appear sincere, substantive, and thoughtful or the now-emboldened public will continue to press for additional reforms. The company should be radically transparent in choosing a new CEO with the vision and leadership abilities to remind its customers, investors, and employees why it exists and the purpose it serves for millions around the world. Uber should seize the chance to immediately demonstrate a new era of accountability by not merely touting the findings of the Holder report but in implementing those changes and clearly and effectively communicating them to its stakeholders.    

Mario Natarelli, managing partner, MBLM
Uber is a classic case of a brand maturing before our eyes. It seems the same qualities that created the disruptive and explosive success for the brand was ultimately the undoing of the culture and its leader. Since there are many billions at stake, sane leadership will eventually right the ship and stabilize the brand. For the entire ecosystem of employees, riders, drivers, municipalities, officials, and suppliers, a commitment and demonstration from the brand to better people practices will be a welcome sight. For Travis Kalanick, he can start planning his triumphant return and hope to mimic that of another brash Silicon Valley tech leader: Steve Jobs.

Brian Ellis, EVP and crisis and critical issues lead, Padilla
The Uber brand has been taking a beating for months, and investors had finally had enough. I believe the future of this company will be defined in the next 12 months. Will the board be able to identify a leader who can re-energize the brand from the inside out? Will we see a talent drain as the stars of the company jump ship? Will drivers and customers be willing to give the new leadership team time to clean things up? Or will they turn to Lyft instead? These are the questions that will dominate the headlines over the next few months. If a brand is clearly a reflection of those that make up the company, then clearly the workplace culture needs to be the highest priority. But that overhaul can’t happen unless employees are engaged, and convinced that the new leaders are committed to making the necessary changes.  

Sean Smith, EVP and global director of reputation management, Porter Novelli
Uber is getting smart crisis counsel right now. Cleaning house of top executives, including Kalanick, is a good start. They need to keep demonstrating their commitment to change through their actions. They should institute reforms to their service, their internal policies, and how they pay and treat their drivers. They will only climb their way out of this hole through measurable changes in their behavior.

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