They say that those that can’t do teach. Well, those that execute marketing and, more specifically PR for Uber teach us what not to do.
Uber is facing new, serious backlash after a horrendous assault by an accused New Delhi Uber driver on a female passenger caused the Indian capital to ban the car service (and extending that ban to other taxi service apps shortly thereafter). This is a heavy blow to the company following a new $1.2 billion round of financing to help lead a massive expansion into South and Southeast Asia, as well as a whole host of developing countries.
There are a lot of factors that led to this incident taking place. Some of those issues rest on the safety of taxi passengers offered by the Indian government, while others, some bigger ones, rest on the shoulders of Uber. There are certain measures that passengers assume have been taken by Uber in order to protect them from these kinds of instances. Some of those measures include thorough background and criminal checks, as well as verified phone numbers and addresses for the drivers. Sadly, this was not the case in this instance in New Delhi.
Before we go any further, I would like to just make it clear that this article is not focused on the New Delhi attack itself, but rather on the response from the Uber team as well as their history of poor crisis management. Really, the questions I have relate more to the handling of marketing and PR for the brand than the specific instance itself. I would also like to note that I am a fan of Uber as a product, and I have been using it since it was first launched. I just think there are some major issues at the top of the company that need fixing in order to ensure the longevity and survival of the brand.
Shortly following the attack, the official statement from Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, was posted on the Uber blog. In an example of some of the most poorly selected rhetoric for a brand crisis in recent memory, Uber embarrassed itself further. While much of the verbiage sympathizes with the victim and promises to work with authorities to ‘make New Delhi a safer city for women’, there is one bit in particular that sounds a little off:
We will work with the government to establish clear background checks currently absent in their commercial transportation licensing programs.
Now, I don’t know what your thoughts are on this, but it sounds an awful lot like blame deflection to me. Though it is clearly stated on Uber’s safety page that they conduct ‘background checks you can trust’, the driver in this instance in New Delhi has had plenty of trouble just like this in the past.
So, with all this information readily available, why does Uber decide to phrase their response in this way?
This Isn’t the First Time
As recently as a few weeks before this incident, Uber came under severe scrutiny for their proposed million-dollar journalist smear campaign. Emil Michael, SVP Business for Uber and the supposed ‘face’ of the company, decided to share his plan at a luncheon that was supposed to be off-the-record. Though they forgot to tell one of the attendees.
Again, the rhetoric of the apology was sympathetic and superficially genuine. But the real message was the fact that Emil Michael remained in his position, continuing his day-to-day operations while the world questioned the security of their data with Uber.
Uber had invested quite a bit in Michael, so one can understand why they wouldn’t simply want to sack him an move on. But to refer to his comments as reprehensible and do simply nothing about says quite a bit more. Any half decent PR executive will tell you that in order to save face, quite a bit more than a brief blog post will be needed. That never happened.
When issues with drivers arose in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the former of the two being an accident resulting in the death of a young girl, was there anything more than a blog post and a differing of responsibility? Again, no. Granted, after the severe backlash of the San Francisco ordeal and the accompanying lawsuit, Uber revised their insurance policy. But that shouldn’t have been prompted from severe repercussions, it should have been a first instinct. And again, I ask, who was responsible for calling the shots? Certainly not a PR executive with half a mind to understand the consumer.
Change and Adapt
As I mentioned above, I think Uber is a fantastic product. I think the transportation industry is being radically changed (or, disrupted, if you prefer) as a result. In fact, when I was speaking at a conference in Kuwait I mentioned my affinity for the app. But in order for the brand to survive, it needs to make some serious changes at the top.
Much like Blackberry (at the time, RIM) fell to the competition thinking that its market share could never be overtaken, Uber is seemingly blinded by its own vanity at the moment. Though it might think otherwise, alternatives (like Lyft) exist and others will enter the market.
For Uber to survive, it will take more than offering a holiday promotion to encourage office parties to use the service for employees. And one of those crucial keys to survival is going to be a PR team that can not only position the brand in a friendlier light, but one that understand what a crisis is, and how it should be dealt with. The fact that one clearly is not there yet is pretty shocking, to say the least.
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