Uber could use a dose of humility right now

A tough week for the ride-sharing company has raised doubts about its ability to convince regulators that it is serious about issues such as privacy and passenger safety.

I took an Uber last night. It was very convenient. On one of those gridlocked New York nights when the traffic is nose to nose and there are no taxis free, the car arrived in five minutes and got me and a friend to our destination quickly, efficiently, and politely – despite the busy roads.

The driver laughed nervously when I revealed I was a journalist, and claimed not to have been following the controversy this week, which was prompted by an Uber exec expounding his theories on how to deal with recalcitrant journalists by tracking their rides and digging up dirt on them. "Had it affected business?" "No." "Had people been talking about it?" "Oh yes."

Before anyone from Uber tries to locate the driver, I should say we were using my friend’s Uber account – I’m more of a subway or cab guy. So, please don’t try and track me down and use my personal details against me: you’ll be wasting your time.

But have the last week’s revelations about remarks made by Uber SVP of business Emil Michael at a dinner in New York City last Friday made me even less likely to sign up? Damn right they have.

BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith broke the story on Monday after he attended the Uber-hosted dinner as a guest of another high-profile journalist, Michael Wolff. Uber claimed after the dinner that it was an off-the-record event, but Smith says this was never communicated to the assembled group on the night, which is a basic requirement of any off-the-record gathering, as any communications pro should know.

Either way, it was spectacularly ill-advised to discuss such tactics in public under any circumstances. Some would say it is unethical at best, illegal at worst, to even consider strategies along these lines. And, clearly, nobody wants a third party tracking their movements with a view to conducting some sort of smear campaign against them.

The company displayed breathtaking arrogance and bad judgment in even surfacing such suggestions for debate - all in the presence of CEO Travis Kalanick by the way, who, along with Michael, subsequently apologized for the remarks.

Uber is a fast-growing ride service with a classic disruptive business model that aims to take the hassle out of the transportation process. It is much beloved by tech execs in San Francisco and Silicon Valley and has quickly gained a big following in New York and other major cities too. And it is rapidly growing into a multi-billion-dollar business, as a conveniently leaked Uber presentation that found its way into Business Insider’s hands yesterday shows.

Critics such as Pando Daily’s Sarah Lacy, one of the journalists mentioned as a possible target at the dinner attended by Smith, call out the company’s arrogance and what she calls "asshole culture" – a culture prevalent at other Silicon Valley startups in her view. It’s a culture that was immediately called out by Uber investors such as Jason Calacanis after Michael’s comments at the dinner.

Uber has also come up against resistance in some markets, both in the US and abroad. For example, you couldn’t hail an Uber in Austin, Texas, home of South By Southwest, and on the surface one of the most likely markets to embrace its model, until a temporary operating agreement was struck by the ride-sharing companies.

And London cabbies are flexing their muscles in what is likely to be a vain attempt to keep the likes of Uber out of England’s capital city. Europe is a little more obsessed with privacy issues than the US, and regulators over there will have watched with interest as Uber outlined its plans to track riders’ lifestyles to dig up dirt on them.

Regulators will also have noted that Google, a company they have already tangled with many times on the privacy front, is an investor in Uber. David Drummond, Google's SVP of corporate development and chief legal officer, is on the Uber board.

To overcome these obstacles, Uber has to learn how to play more nicely with regulators, city officials, politicians, and government and, like it or not, the media – which it needs to be part of the vehicle through which the company tells its story.

Journalists are not naïve. We know we’re not the most-loved profession in the land. Business journalists are no exception to that rule. And we know that, however friendly we might get with a contact or a company we are covering, it’s all just business. Contacts are just that: contacts – they’re not friends.

Some might be asking where Uber’s high-profile campaign manager David Plouffe is in all this. He has been remarkably low profile over the last week, operating behind the scenes in the fashion with which he became used during his time as a comms adviser to President Obama at the White House.

It will take more than a bit of background briefing and some judiciously leaked documents to turn this conversation in a more positive direction for Uber. They have to have a long hard look at themselves and their internal culture. This goes way beyond "haters gonna hate."

And how do you explain the note doing the rounds on LinkedIn over the last couple of days to numerous PR pros selling a "highly visible" opportunity for a "game-changer" to work on David [Plouffe]’s team and "head up an intricate piece of the communications strategy from San Francisco." That’s either spectacularly bad timing or demonstrates enormous cojones.

I wonder how many PR pros would be queuing up to take on this task after such a spectacular week of own goals and a dubious internal culture laid bare for all to see. Soon it won’t just be journalists deleting their Uber app from their mobile device.

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