'Uber has won over consumers, but not City Hall' - PR pros

Uber maybe popular with consumers, but with a London mayoral race just around the corner, public affairs professionals agree the ride-sharing app has work to do to convince the regulator and MPs it's a 'fit and proper' operator.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

Transport for London (TfL) stripped the ride-hailing app of its London licence after concerns about the number of drivers who had faked their identity on the firm's app had still not been addressed.

Uber's cars will not disappear from the capital's streets immediately as the firm has said it will appeal, and can continue to operate pending the outcome, provided it launches proceedings within 21 days.

TfL admitted the company had made positive changes and improvements to its culture, leadership and systems in the period since the Chief Magistrate granted it a licence in June 2018.

"A key issue identified was that a change to Uber's systems allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to other Uber driver accounts. This allowed them to pick up passengers as though they were the booked driver, which occurred in at least 14,000 trips – putting passenger safety and security at risk," TfL said.

"This means all the journeys were uninsured and some passenger journeys took place with unlicensed drivers, one of which had previously had their licence revoked by TfL.

"Another failure allowed dismissed or suspended drivers to create an Uber account and carry passengers, again compromising passenger safety and security.

"TfL recognises the steps that Uber has put in place to prevent this type of activity. However, it is a concern that Uber's systems seem to have been comparatively easily manipulated," TfL added.

A win for black cabs

The decision will be seen as a win for black-cab drivers in London, who have been lobbying to ensure Uber meets standards and regulations within the industry. The Licensed Taxi Drivers' Association (LTDA) represents 11,000 members and has been the voice of London cab drivers for nearly 50 years.

Steve McNamara, general secretary of the LTDA, said: "The Mayor has absolutely made the right decision in refusing to relicense Uber, and Londoners will be safer as a result.

"Unfit operators cannot get away with deliberately shirking their responsibilities. Uber has had 17 months to comply with the conditions of their temporary licence, and yet it has continually put Londoners at risk by letting drivers on the road who aren't properly licensed or insured."

The LTDA's PR and public affairs function is handed by Newington Communications, while Hanover is responsible for Uber in the UK.

Jamie O'Hara is a director at J. Francis Advisory, where he works with private-sector clients in the US and UK on regulatory issues in infrastructure and telecoms. He was TfL's chief adviser until 2017.

He said: "The sole purpose of any transport operator is to keep your customers safe and if you can't demonstrate that then you've no right to exist, regardless of how popular you are."

O’Hara warned that new rivals have entered the market since Uber first lost its licence two years ago, and said the service is 'in the last-chance saloon' when it comes to regulation that could have an impact on the brand's global reputation.

"What's changed in those two years is the emergence of rivals to challenge Uber's market share," he said. "The likes of Kapten, which markets itself as more ethical, and Kabbee, which is often cheaper, are not only chipping away at market share but also racing to lure drivers away from Uber.

"London would be an odd place without Uber and, as a user, I want them to continue to operate. However, to their regulators, their investors and their customers, they now need to establish trust and build confidence. They need to stop acting like they're mightier than the regulator, and demonstrate they're on top of making the [required] changes," he added.

Actions speak louder than words

Philip Pank, a partner at Pagefield, said: "Uber arrived in London on a mission to raise hackles and disrupt the market. It has successfully won over consumers with the product, but has failed to win influential friends in City Hall.

"This is a failure of message-delivery as much as it is a strategic blunder. Increased competition, consumer choice, jobs, low-emission vehicles, cashless technology: the company had compelling arguments to help win over doubters. But in the end, it simply misjudged TfL," he argued.

"In the short time it has left to try to win a reprieve, Uber could do well to remember that TfL's chair, Sadiq Khan, is ramping up his campaign for mayoral elections next year, along with other Metro mayors like Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham. It'll have to move quickly to convince new London MPs as well as the GLA that it really is safe, and showcase the technology to prove it."

TfL's decision shows that actions speak louder than words, according to Stuart Thomson, head of public affairs at BDB Pitmans.

"Uber has undertaken a massive charm offensive since it originally ran into trouble with TfL. It changed everything from its advertising through to its engagement with stakeholders, and the new CEO took personal ownership to address the company's failings.

"It has been trying to show that it has listened and changed. The external communications have been impeccable. But the decision shows that fundamentally, actions speak louder than words. There remain issues to address," he said.

"Uber’s competitors may be celebrating, but they need to learn the lessons and think about their continued strategic engagement now, not wait for any potential trouble they may encounter in the future," he said.

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