Uber in crisis

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#DeleteUber is a social media campaign encouraging people to delete the Uber app and their accounts with their company. This campaign started during the mass protests against President Trump’s Executive Order which called for a ban of citizens from certain Muslim countries from entering the country. During these protests, Uber was perceived as trying to break a one-hour taxi strike at JFK Airport as they tweeted that they had turned off surge pricing for their services in that area. The whole situation was fueled by the fact that Uber’s Travis Kalanick was on Trump’s business advisory council at the time. The first phase of the #DeleteUber campaign went viral on social media as celebrities like Lena Durham backed it. This campaign lifted Uber’s competitor Lyft into the top five for apps downloaded on the Apple app store.

Uber’s handling of the whole issue was a shambles. Travis Kalanick failed to explain clearly what it meant to be part of Trump’s business advisory council and that it was not an endorsement of his policies. Something that other business leaders on the council who run Tesla, Disney, and Pepsi did well as their brands did not suffer similar reputational hits as Uber did.

During the protests and the subsequent #DeleteUber crisis, Uber’s responses were unapologetic and futile. In his memo to staff, CEO Travis Kalanick failed to address the matter directly as he opted to defend his decision to join the council.

The company could have benefitted significantly from taking a step down and apologise for their error of judgement. This is an approach which many businesses shy away from but is effective for reputation management’s sake.

A study by FTI Consulting on communicating through a crisis found that the cost of not saying sorry can have a significant impact on the credibility of management and the reputation of the wider firm. It also found that in some cases, if you don’t apologise, you will double your litigation costs in terms of value lost.

An early apology at that stage could have made a significant difference because fast forward to a few weeks later, Uber is now embroiled in another scandal as there are claims that there is a ‘systemic problem’ of sexism at the company. In her blog post that was shared on Twitter 22,000 times and refuelled the #DeleteUber campaign, Susan Fowler detailed how she experienced sexual harassment during her time at the company. She added that the human resources department refused to discipline the manager who had propositioned her on her first day.  Furthermore, Google’s Waymo has just filed a lawsuit against Uber over stolen trade secrets for their driverless car project.

Questions are now floating around Uber’s company culture and whether people want to associate themselves with such a toxic brand.  As the world changes, it’s important for brands to understand that it’s not business as usual and Uber could end up being a case study of how toxic corporate cultures can erode the value of a once loved brand. I can only speak for myself, but I am sure many would agree that Uber needs to take a good look under the hood and fix the leak before the whole engine blows.

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