Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Uber’s negative public relations seen as systemic problem

Local transit tech company Uber has driven straight into a media-relations storm, and new revelations have local public-relations experts shaking their heads at the cascading controversy.

In its latest PR snafu, an Uber recruiting document leaked to Buzzfeed details the transit company's desire to “weaponize” facts to battle against taxi companies in a public relations war.

“Once we have the research, we have to weaponize and disseminate it,” the document notes.

The aggressive tactics may have been in response to the taxi industry's national “Who's Driving You?” campaign, intended to promote the safety and reliability of traditional cabs over the tech ride upstarts.

Dave Sutton, a spokesman for the campaign, told The San Francisco Examiner “taxi companies have nothing to fear. Licensed taxis have been following the law painstakingly.”

Uber's smartphone app connects riders with for-hire drivers in over 225 cities worldwide, but it is headquartered in South of Market here in The City. Recently an executive at Uber, Emil Michael, mentioned a plan to research and publicly smear a journalist.

The comment created a country-wide public relations crisis. #DeleteUber is now a trending hashtag on Twitter as Uber users delete the app in growing numbers.

Larry Kamer, a local public-relations crisis management expert, believes Uber's problem is about more than its public messaging.

“There's a big communications problem here, but there seems to be actual behavioral issues at the company that need to be addressed,” Kamer told The Examiner. “This whole attitude of arrogance, misogyny, whatever you want to call it.”

Michael's comments were directed at a female journalist, Sarah Lacy of PandoDaily. This has fed into an existing narrative about the company's alleged sexism, Kamer said.

“This will be especially true in an attentive, progressive place like San Francisco,” he said.

That narrative began with earlier sexist remarks by Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who said his position as CEO helped him in his sexual conquests, nicknaming the app “Boober.” One Uber promotion tried to connect riders with “hot chicks.”

The company also stoked privacy concerns by mining user data to determine which Uber users called cabs so they could avoid the “walk of shame” after sexual one-night stands, which Uber wrote about on its blog.

The company also tracked GPS data of journalists and others who used its service in multiple high-profile incidents.

“Last time I looked, technology did not enable us to walk on water,” Kamer said. And though Kalanick tweeted an apology to the journalist who was targeted in the remarks, Kamer said that apology didn't go far enough.

“I teach a whole class on it” at the University of San Francisco, he said. “[Your apology] has to recognize what you've done to hurt or offend somebody.”

Kamer would know, as he represented Nike during the '90s, as the shoe giant was rocked by national allegations that its shoes were made in sweatshops.

Nike survived. But will Uber recover from its negative publicity?

Attorney Christopher Dolan points to another media-relations mishap Uber recently recovered from: the death of Sofia Liu.

Liu was 6 years old when an Uber driver collided with her in the Tenderloin, leading to her death on New Year's Eve. The family hasn't been paid a dime in death insurance, which Uber says they are not liable for.

Dolan is suing Uber on behalf of the family. Despite Uber's callous response to the tragedy, Dolan said, people still stuck it out with the transit app.

“To some,” Dolan said, “it's the heroin of transportation.”

But why would a threat against a journalist garner more national outrage than the death of a young girl?

“Those poor parents were dealing with their own personal tragedy, they wouldn't have the human capacity, nobody would, to make the company pay,” Kamer said.

The family also does not speak proficient English.

Lacy, however, is a national journalist with a voice that carries.

“She does have a platform,” he said, “and this is a story dropping into a larger narrative.”

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