Our role is to bring some perspective to the exuberance

The multiple comms challenges faced by Uber only serve to highlight how difficult it is for young companies to grow up in public.

Rory Godson: managing partner at Powerscourt
Rory Godson: managing partner at Powerscourt

Scarcely a week goes by without Uber finding itself at the centre of some controversy. The fast-growing taxi booking firm, valued at $40bn in a pre-Christmas investment round, started the new year with a setback in China, which has banned private cars from offering services through such apps.

China joins a long list of countries where regulators or authorities are erecting obstacles in the way of Uber’s boundless ambition – South Africa, Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, India, South Korea, Australia. This firefighting alone would provide a prodigious workload for Uber’s comms team.

But it is compounded by more distressing incidents – the passenger allegedly raped by an Uber driver in New Delhi, the child knocked down in San Francisco – and by clumsy dealings with journalists, including the notorious New York dinner at which a senior Uber executive suggested digging up dirt to blacken the reputation of a hostile technology writer.

Growing up in public is difficult. How should fast-growing young companies cope with the comms challenge?

Entrepreneurs need to recognise this: the same bold self-confidence that allows them to take on the world, creating new businesses and disrupting established markets and practices, can in time threaten their continued success.

The early promise and rapid growth, which attract public acclaim and hangers-on in equal measure, encourage the development of cast-iron self-belief. Managers start to believe their own hype. They become dismissive of criticism. There is a danger that self-confidence starts to tip over into arrogance.

It appears Uber has followed this model almost to a T. Now Travis Kalanick, its founder and CEO, is having to recognise that society is full of stakeholders who will fight for their own interests, which strike them as equally legitimate as Uber’s. 

In short, a degree of humility is required. Great companies must endure for more than a season in the sun. Circumstances change. It is foolish to alienate potential supporters.

Easy to say, of course. Harder, sometimes, for a high-flying entrepreneur to hear. That is why comms agencies are needed to provide a sense of perspective.

Google provides a good example of how to strike the right tone. One of the most successful and rapidly growing corporations the world has ever seen, Google’s ambitions were no less extravagant than Uber’s. The intellectual self-certainty of its founders can match anything at other Silicon Valley titans.

However, while it was planning to "organise the world’s information", Google did it with a quirky humour and sense of fun – as exemplified by its logo doodles, primary colours and the renowned playful culture of its Googleplex headquarters.

Google is now a giant $350bn corporation that is stepping into new markets. But despite increasing scrutiny from European regulators, it retains the overwhelming support of users.

No-one likes a know-it-all. PR people have to make their more exuberant clients understand that.

Rory Godson is managing partner at Powerscourt

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