Uber's PR Problem -- And How to Fix It

Uber is under siege. The uber-fast-growing transportation network startup is getting hit from all sides over a long series of events that demonstrates what many in the media have characterized as everything from chronic bad behavior to a culture of sexism and misogyny. 

The latest controversy is over comments that Senior VP Emil Michael made at a high profile Manhattan dinner that included Uber cofounder and CEO Travis Kalanick, publisher Arianna Huffington, iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman and BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith.

Michael, apparently frustrated with one particular tech journalist’s persistent attacks on the company, floated the idea of hiring a team to dig up personal dirt on the press and “give the media a taste of its own medicine,” as BuzzFeed’s Smith reported on Monday.

That wasn’t such a good idea, to say the least.

Some in the media are calling for the executive’s head for making that ill-conceived suggestion. I agree he should be fired but not for that reason. He should be fired for being a moron. I mean, who says something like that at a media dinner? I don’t care that he thought it was off the record. You just don’t do something that stupid and expect to keep your job.

Both Michael and Kalanick apologized publicly after the news broke but that hasn’t stopped a media firestorm that has just about every commentator from New York to Silicon Valley criticizing the company’s aggressive culture that stems from the unabashedly hard-charging and highly-competitive Kalanick.

As a guy who used to turn around technology company’s reputations for a living -- we’re talking public companies that were universally despised by the media, by the way -- the Uber train wreck has been painful to watch. So I’m going to provide a little advice to Kalanick on how he can fix his problem. Pro bono, no less.

This may come as a surprise, but yours is not the first startup to experience growth pains. It is not the first to spark controversy. It is not the first to have ugly run-ins with the media. And it is not the first to develop a bad reputation that affects how customers see you.

It happens. It is manageable. But not the way you are going about it. And not the way all the media know-it-alls say you should go about it, either. Yes, you’ve gone off the rails and shot yourself in the foot a few times, but I don’t see anything wrong with Uber’s culture. That sort of thing worked for Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison; it can work for you. But there’s a world of difference between how you run the company behind the scenes and what you say and do in public. It’s way past time for you and the company to make that distinction.

This is how you fix what is actually a PR problem:

1. Take it seriously. Yes, I know Uber is valued at $18 billion and looking for another $1 billion in capital. I know you’re growing like crazy. I know you’ve got a hundred things higher up on your priority list that are more important. Fine. But if you don’t address this now, it will end up in the top three. It will hurt your brand and your business. That’s the bad news. The good news is the fix actually requires less of your time, not more.

2. Hire a senior-level marketing / communications guy. Yes, I know you hired David Plouffe as SVP of policy and strategy. Wrong guy. This is not the White House and you don’t need a political operator. You need a top-notch marketing and communications pro who knows how to run high-tech PR. He’ll know what to do, which is this.

3. Take your public-facing self down a few notches. You’re doing more harm than good. The reason so many people characterize you as a jerk is because you often come across as one. You don’t have to change who you are, just consider if what you’re saying, posting or doing in public is helping the company and its stakeholders. If not, don’t do it, simple as that. There are plenty of low profile CEOs. For you, less is more.

4. Do the media dance -- the right way. This is not rocket science. The way you change perception is not with swanky high-profile dinners but grass roots style: get out in front of the key pundits, columnists and reporters on a one-on-one basis with all the great stuff you’re doing. No more, no less. Let your new marketing SVP lead the charge, including handling the problems that inevitably arise. One more thing: nothing is ever off the record. 

5. Take control and take the high road. Don’t let a few critics get under your skin. You’re not a victim so don’t act like one. Don’t get down in the dirt. Rise above it. Take control and take the high road. And if some self-important sensationalist blowhard wants to boycott you and call you and half of Silicon Valley a bunch of sexist, misogynistic bro-holes, just let it go.

Look, consumers are influenced by a lot of sources and you have more control over how they perceive your company and its brand than you realize. Your goal is to make it about your products and services, not about you and your missteps. And be patient. In time, everything will settle down and work itself out. Just quit shooting yourself in the foot.