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It’s only the middle of Spring, but 2017 has already offered up ample opportunities for PR pros to learn from the work of crisis managers at top brands. One thing that is apparent is that PR calamities come in all shapes and sizes and no single response is right for every situation. It is also clear that when crisis management is necessary, brands should remember the Hippocratic oath that doctors take, “First, do no harm.” And although United Airlines and Pepsi get honorable mentions in the bad PR category, so far, this year Uber has taken the prize.
Uber’s Rough Start to 2017
I hate to say it, but it’s going to take bullet points to outline everything the ride sharing service has been through already this year. Some of these are the kind of problems that even the best corporate citizen brands can trip into, while others are self-inflicted signs of trouble.
- January 7 – An Uber driver crashed, paralyzing the rider and bringing to light the fact that the driver’s past misdemeanors were either missed or ignored during the background check. A lawsuit ensued.
- January 28 – The hashtag #DeleteUber started trending after Uber refused to join a taxi driver’s protest by stopping pickups to JFK in response to Trump’s (later thwarted) travel ban.
- February 2 – As the #DeleteUber movement picked up steam, CEO Travis Kalanick gave up his controversial position on Trump’s economic advisory council.
- February 19 – Former employee, Susan Fowler wrote a post about Uber’s workplace culture, claiming it was actively hostel to women.
- February 27 – As if to give support to Fowler’s claims, SVP, Amit Singhal, was asked to leave the company after reports surfaced that he was involved in a sexual harassment case.
- February 28 – Travis Kalanick was in the news again, this time after video surfaced of him arguing aggressively with a driver who expressed concern over the company’s fare reductions. Kalanick later apologized and promised to get help with his leadership skills.
- March 19 – Jeff Jones left the position of president after less than a year saying that his, “beliefs and approach to leadership” are “inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.
- March 23 – Google’s self-driving-car division filed a lawsuit against Uber claiming that former Google employee, Anthony Levandowski stole some of Google’s technology.
- March 24 – One of Uber’s self-driving cars hit another vehicle that failed to yield on an Arizona highway. Luckily, no one was hurt, but the incident caused Uber to halt the program and raised questions about the future of the program.
- April 4 – Things on the self-driving front do not seem to be getting better. A report from the California Department of Motor Vehicles was released and Uber did very poorly on the key metric that reveals how good autonomous vehicles perform – the frequency with which a person has to take over for the computer. Google cars need intervention about once every 5,128. Uber, on the other hand, had issues arise once a mile.
- April 5 – Out of concern for the safety of its citizens, Massachusetts introduced stricter rules for ride sharing driver background checks. This caused Uber to lose 8,000 drivers who had passed the company’s own background checks. Calling attention, once again, to Uber’s lax oversight.
- April 8 – The city of Rome says, “We’re out,” banning the service entirely.
- April 11 – In another major executive departure, Rachel Whetstone, Uber’s head of global PR left the company. (Can you blame her? Crisis management is exhausting. Get some rest, Rachel.)
- April 12 – California regulators consider fining Uber about $1.1 million for allegedly failing to investigate reports of intoxicated drivers.
- April 18 – The executive exodus continues with Sherif Marakby, VP of global vehicle programs and leader of Uber’s self-driving-car project calling it quits.
- April 23 – The New York Times writes a scathing article detailing Uber’s black-hat technology hacks targeting Lyft drivers and iPhone users.
Unlike United Airlines, which suffered a stock drop after a passenger was seriously injured after being pulled off a flight, Uber isn’t publicly traded, so we don’t know how all of this has impacted the financial standing of the company. We do know that the #DeleteUber campaign resulted in more than 200,000 people deleting Uber. Uber’s chief competitor, Lyft, seems to have been the beneficiary with bookings jumping up 137% from the previous year in February.
Crisis Management Tips
You probably are facing nowhere near the avalanche of bad news that the Uber team is dealing with, but difficult situations can arise in even the most carefully run organizations. Here are a few things you can do to weather the storm.
1 – Start monitoring before a problem comes up
Information is your biggest ally when bad news hits. With media monitoring software in place, you’ll be the first to know if negative mentions start popping up so that you can respond quickly and proactively.
2 – Respond thoughtfully
Responding quickly is important, but getting it right is absolutely essential. Target the right journalists and gather all of the facts before making a statement or answering questions.
3 - Be honest
The public understands that companies are made up of people and people make mistakes, but they are less likely to forgive when brands lie or cover-up bad behavior or ineffective policies.
4 – Learn
Crisis management does not stop when the issue fades from the headlines. Smart PR pros take the opportunity to learn from the situation. Ask questions like, “What would we do different next time?” Also put a recovery strategy in place. If you lost social media followers as a result of the problem, for example, craft a plan to rebuild your audience.
It will be interesting to see if Uber can right the ship. We’ll check back in later in the year and see how they are doing. Meanwhile, if you are ready to put the PR tools in place to make managing your own tricky situations easier, just drop us a line.
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