Uber has been living a public relations nightmare in recent weeks, including accusations of inappropriate handling of user data, widespread sexual harassment, and stealing intellectual property from a Google spin-off. Ties to President Trump and how Uber responded to a taxi strike in New York City resulted in a viral #DeleteUber campaign on social media. And supposedly an uptick in employees of the ride hailing service are thinking about jumping ship. Oh, and a leaked video of Travis Kalanick berating an Uber driver didn't help, although it did prompt the CEO to admit to needing leadership help to turn the company around.
The good news coming out of all this bad news: Several important lessons can be learned from Uber's plight. Take it from Bullpen Capital Partner Paul Martino who says decades of watching CEOs run companies gives him a unique perspective on Uber's publicity problems.
1. High-profile companies should be ready for all the knives to come out at once.
While it may seem as if Uber heaped mistakes on top of mistakes, many of the stories reported in the media may have been ready to go for some period of time. Once the floodgates are open, a whole wave of bad press can be expected. What's more sensational, after all--good news or the negative kind? "You have to realize you're in a war now, and you need to get the right kind of footing together, to deal with the fact that there is going to be an onslaught," he says.
2. Fighting a PR war means proactively telling positive stories.
Uber's rash of negative publicity in many ways is a self-inflicted wound which the company could have prevented had it been balanced with positive messages. The lesson here: Whether it's philanthropy, innovation or unique executive profiles, every company should have a pile of positive talking points at the ready. "Get out there talking about the things you're doing that no one else is doing," he says.
3. You'd better have a solid plan for social media.
The #DeleteUber campaign on Facebook and Twitter erupted when Uber was accused of breaking a taxi strike in New York, right around the time Kalanick was taking heat for sitting on the president's business-advisory council in the midst of public outcry regarding Trump's travel ban. Uber tweeted that company wasn't trying to break any strike, and Kalanick quit the council, but momentum on social media was already swelling. "If you think the [traditional] media is good at negative stories... social media is really good at negative stories," Martino says. What helps: Having strong relationships with key influencers in place. Then, it won't seem merely reactionary--or worse, weak--when you ask them to back you up and help steer public sentiment into an authentically positive light.
4. Truly innovative companies can weather a PR storm.
Like Uber, for example. And what if Kalanick's admission that he needs help managing the company eventually sets Uber down paths it wouldn't have found without all the drama? "You can imagine a scenario where this mishap led to a hiring that was long overdue, and the company is in a better position when that hire is in place," Martino says, calling the negative publicity a "body blow." "It hurts to get hit in the chest, but I see no reason to believe that it would be anything more than that for the company, even though this has been a very uncomfortable month or two."