Learning from Uber – the perfect case study of how not to operate during a global crisis
For weeks now, we have been watching as tensions around US-based on-demand taxi company Uber have mounted.
Through sheer brute force alone, Uber has successfully managed to attack and alienate almost every echelon of the society upon which it depends. It appears that the hubris of its leadership is fast exhausting the goodwill of the public, and the company will soon find itself in very deep water, regardless of the political all-star protection it has managed to secure.
Uber's story serves as a cautionary tale about the power of disruption. Whilst this is a tactic that is necessary in a business landscape of behemoths and information saturation, it is also one that should not be wielded without due caution.
Uber's PR team should be celebrating having secured feature pieces in both the FT and Vanity Fair, the latter of which could have successfully repositioned the brand from its helter-skelter course. Now they are probably wondering when the next fire will start.
As such, Uber works as the perfect case study for anyone evaluating how not to operate during a global crisis. The aforementioned coverage could have been a good opportunity to reposition the brand, but instead has revealed hubristic leadership that appears to lack the maturity and the composure to properly deal with the level of attack being levied at their brand.
So, what lessons can we take away from this tale? Whilst the scandals surrounding Uber have generated miles of column inches, they have undermined some basic tenets that are key to a brand's success, creating a lot of brand toxicity in the process.
Crucial to any enduring relationship is trust. Mistakes are natural, but it's important to take ownership of, and responsibility for them, if you want to keep your clients, sponsors and public on side.
By suspending rather than immediately firing drivers convicted of violence, and by not being seen to take action in response to SVP Emil Michael's recent comments about opposition research, Uber has severely undermined its credibility. It's failure to address complaints of misogyny throughout its ranks has contributed significantly to this process.
The old adage 'do not bite the hand that feeds' rings true here. The only way out of bad press is through the press, so try to make friends. Many brands come under fire from the media - sometimes unjustly so - but more often than not, the issue at the heart of the matter is a lack of clear communication.
Siege mentality is not the solution. Journalists and the public alike are more likely to respect a brand that can address misinformation or criticism with composure and confidence.
It is impossible to control everything, but to be seen to be in control in the midst of a crisis is of vital importance.
In order for any organism to thrive, it has to be well-adapted to its environment. This also goes for brands. Being well-adapted in this instance means being aware of the culture in which you operate, its rules and its sensitivities. Being successful is not just about finding gaps in a market, but about understanding the market itself and how that gap appeared in the first place. Damage the environment, and you damage yourself.
As with credibility, it is important to be seen to be committed to the issues that one claims to be important. If a brand claims to be committed to environmental issues but is a persistent emissions offender, it goes to follow that the brand will lose credibility.
Similarly, it is one thing for Uber to make statements about the importance of its passengers' safety in the media, or apologies about remarks about women, and another to be seen to be making further mistakes later down the line.
Mark Borkowski is founder and head of Borkowski PR. You can find him on Twitter @MarkBorkowski