Uber's recent crisis exposes a disjointed comms function

Uber's latest crisis exposes holes in the set-up of the ride-sharing company's communications department and policies, say PR pros.

Photo via Uber
Photo via Uber

Actor Ashton Kutcher’s tweets on Wednesday, supporting controversial remarks from an Uber exec about theoretically investigating critical journalists, expose holes in the set-up of the ride-sharing company’s communications department and policies, say PR pros.

Kutcher, also an Uber investor, made his comments following public apologies on Tuesday from the company’s CEO Travis Kalanick, and Uber business SVP Emil Michael, who made the careless statement at a dinner on Friday in New York.

Jason Calacanis, another investor in the company, also shared his views on Michael’s comments on Twitter, independent of Uber.

Michael’s remarks, along with Kutcher and Calacanis’ actions, show that Uber has no control over its external messaging, Flatiron Communications’ founding principal Peter Himler told PRWeek.

He explained that the main issue lies in the fact that the comms function at Uber tends to be decentralized.

"When Uber hired former Obama for America campaign manager David Plouffe [in August] to oversee global communications and policy, I thought he would galvanize and centralize the company’s messaging," Himler said. "But it is obvious they still don’t have control over their comms and they seem to be lacking the rigor that most public companies have."

Because Kutcher was allowed the freedom to air his stance on Uber’s situation on social media, he might have hindered the company’s efforts to make the story disappear by giving the crisis more legs and another day in the news cycle.

"The thing you want to do as a company is kill a story like this as quickly as you can and [Kutcher’s] tweets fueled the fire, giving this story a whole new breath of life," said Todd Cadley, VP of marketing and communications at Millennial Media.

Before Kutcher weighed in, Michael apologized via an official Uber statement on Tuesday, in which he said that his "regretful" remarks do not reflect his actual beliefs and have no relation to the company’s views or approach.

In addition, he personally called PandoDaily editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy, one outspoken critic of Uber who his comments at the dinner were directed towards, to apologize off the record. When she refused to talk to him off the record, Michael hung up and apologized to her via email.

According to Cadley, this was a mistake.

"[Michael] should have talked to [Lacy] on the record, admitted he is an idiot and made a mistake," he said. "An email doesn’t have the power and conviction as when someone is addressing you personally on the phone."

Kalanick also apologized in a 13-tweet series on Tuesday, but did not fire Michael.

He stated that Michael’s comments were "terrible" and do not represent Uber.

InkHouse founder Beth Monahan said that while the Uber apology encompassed the right sentiment and intent, it fell flat because it lacked specificity about how the company would change going forward.

"Their apology felt like words intended to deflect rather than actions intended to rectify bad behavior," echoed Shift CEO Todd Defren.

Any apologies Uber issues in this instance are rendered moot if the company’s lax comms policy continues to enable its staffers and investors to publicly voice their personal views, which is the bigger issue that needs to be worked on at the company, explained Himler.

For instance, on Tuesday afternoon, Uber’s New York GM Josh Mohrer tweeted a picture of his office dancing to the negative publicity. He later deleted the tweet.

"There is a big disconnect between what the CEO is saying and how his employees are acting," said Melissa Arnoff, SVP at Levick. "That is what the public and investors are going to look at."

If the company wants the public to takes its apology seriously, it needs to take action – either in the form of an internal policy change or by axing staffers, she added.

"In the end, it is probably the fault of the CEO for not laying down the law on who can speak on behalf of the company," said Himler. "At some point investors are going to weigh in and the board is going to remove the CEO if this kind of behavior continues."

Uber’s alleged PR plan against reporters follows a long line of gaffes. The company has also faced challenges from taxi drivers and unions in a number of cities and states. More than a dozen lawsuits around the country have accused Uber of incidences involving wrongful death, regulatory complaints, and withheld tips.

The company is also investigating its New York general manager for reportedly tracking the location of a BuzzFeed reporter without her consent.

Uber did not respond to PRWeek’s request for comment about its comms strategy.

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