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Uber, taxis and PR: What to do when your creative disruption causes human consequences

July 14, 2014 | 4 min read

Uber may well represent the future of the service sector, but it doesn’t operate in a social vacuum.

Uber and London's cabbies face a PR struggle

When thousands of black cabbies took to the streets last month to protest against Uber, the Silicon Valley-based booking app, we saw again the consequence of globalisation when it rips through a protected industry.

Uber really upsets cabbies, quite understandably. All have worked for little or no money for three years to gain 'The Knowledge', believing that the hardship was worth it because there was a job for life at the end of it. Uber’s mobile technology could end that, shortcutting the inconvenience of calling a minicab while advanced satnav drives down the price attached to the knowledge itself.

Uber’s argument, that it is serving the needs of the consumer by pushing down costs, is also hard to dispute but the reaction on both sides was wearily predictable.

The cabbies used a tactic perfected by the tube unions, which is to cloak a much bigger row about pay, conditions and regulation behind a more procedural issue. On the Underground, every dispute is supposedly about safety; the cabbies argue that Uber is being allowed to bypass metering rules that they are forced to follow, at a high cost to them.

Transport for London has since referred the metering issue to the high court to rule on, but to focus on the rights and wrongs of this is to miss the point. The rules-based system that the cabbies want to uphold is a state-sanctioned monopoly. This is justified only for as long if it benefits the consumer.

The truth is that London’s cab system increasingly serves the interests of the producer and a relatively small elite that it serves. Just look at a cabbie’s face when you ask him if you can use a credit card (even if he has a machine in his cab) or try and find a black cab outside of the West End, Mayfair or Notting Hill on a Saturday night and you’ll understand what I mean.

So the facts seem to serve Uber’s case, but instead of using them, it reached for the Silicon Valley comms playbook, describing LDTA as “stuck in the dark ages”, while revelling in the number of new sign-ups it had on the day of the strike.

Fair enough, you might say, but Uber needs to remember that it’s telling 20,000 small business owners that they could be out of a job, not to mention threatening an iconic institution which few Londoners want to see disappear. No one is suggesting that the black cab should be kept for sentimental reasons, but being on the right side of this argument means acknowledging that creative destruction has human consequences.

Facebook, Amazon and Google were all able to trade on their upstart status to shake off criticism from the protected industries they threatened. Since then, tech companies have stopped being the antidote to big business and have become big business themselves. Inevitably, this brings with it a responsibility; how they handle this is one of the big comms dilemmas of the next decade.

Mark Lowe is a founding partner at Third City. Follow him on Twitter @markrlowe


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