Uber Scandal Lesson Learned

uber scandal journalists

It was tough to be an envoy in the Middle Ages. There was a good chance the king that you called upon would not take the bad news you carried kindly. Then it was off with your head.

According to this Buzzfeed story about an Uber executive plotting a smear campaign against a journalist, some companies are still blaming the messenger.

At a group dinner in New York, Uber executive Emil Michael suggested that the company should consider hiring opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media. The effort would particularly look at the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized Uber for not valuing women.

According to Buzzfeed, The executive made the comments in a conversation he later said he believed was off the record. In a statement through Uber Monday evening, he said he regretted them and that they didn’t reflect his or the company’s views.

Basic rules of start-up communications, 2017: 

1. Don’t attack the press. You wont win this one. As the saying goes, Never fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Even perhaps especially in the digital age the words of a reporter can spread far and wide. In short, don’t pick fights with reporters. Its counter-productive and wastes your time and resources (such as public relations people) who would be better used promoting the company and its products.

2. There is no such thing as off the record. Have Uber executives not been taught this yet? Seriously? MSG Communications has been teaching this in media training sessions since 2002. This is the Internet age. Hundreds of millions of people have smartphones that can videotape and record. Uber is obviously a spawn of that very Internet age. If a reporter, or a blogger, or some guy who snuck in with a phone, like the waiter who recorded Mitt Romneys infamous 47% of Americans will vote for Obama no matter what remark, is in earshot, they will capture whatever dumb thing you say.

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3. Apologize. REALLY apologize. Don’t say, as Michael did in a statement, “The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner — borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensational-listic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for — do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach. At the dinner Michael went into detail about his plan to spend a million dollars and hire eight opposition researchers and journalists. They would look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine.  That’s more than just an off-hand remark. Most people will assume that you really did mean it. Saying at the end of a statement that these remarks were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them is still not the unequivocal apology he needed to give.

4. Make your own case; the best defense is a good offense. According to the Buzzfeed story, Michael expressed outrage at Lacy’s column and said that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers. If that’s your case, make it with positive statistics on Uber and negative ones on competitive taxi services. But rather than do this, Michael continued to dig himself a deeper hole, saying he thought Lacy should be held “personally responsible” for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber from her smart phone and was then sexually assaulted.

5. Listen to your public relations people.  Let them teach you how to work with the press BEFORE such disasters take place. Let them speak, let them give you mock hot seat interviews, and listen to their counsel. Don’t think you know better. This is what happens.

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6. Think of your press critics as a free focus group. You need to listen to critics and try to kill them with kindness. That doesn’t mean giving journalists free rides and free lunches. That does mean taking what they say seriously. If they are harping on a problem, try to address it.

Unfortunately for Uber, this executive saw the reporter as a problem to be silenced, rather than someone whose questions about the company needed to be addressed.

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