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Uber's Caught In PR Firestorm With Suggestion To 'Dig Up Dirt' About Media Critics

Uber is currently going through a hailstorm of controversy in the US, sprouting from a few ill-timed events. The centre of these occurrences seem to be the clash between Uber execs and members of the American press, more specifically female reporters, and the situation has escalated to the point where Uber’s privacy issues is dragged into the fray. Strangely, it all began with a dinner.

A Dinner Gone Bad

Everything began from a press dinner. Uber has had a streak of bad press lately, with Uber’s management team being labeled as “insensitive and hyper-aggressive” according to a prominent Buzzfeed News piece. According to Michael Wolff, a reporter from USA Today, he was invited for a press dinner organized to improve the relationship between Uber and the US press. He, in turn, invited Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, as his guest. And that, according to Wolff, was when the first problem occurred.

I had understood that the Uber dinner, like other such media meet-and-greets — I’ve been to hundreds over the years — was off the record. I neglected, however, to specifically tell Smith this.

What resulted from a dinner borne of goodwill was an article written around a dinner conversation with Emil Michael, Senior Vice President of Business for Uber, where Michael suggested to Smith, a member of the media, that perhaps the company should hire a team of researchers to dig up private information on its critics in the media and, in a way, fight fire with fire.

Image Credit: WSJ
Image Credit: WSJ

These comments, made with Michael’s belief that it was ‘off the record’, was centered around his frustrations over Sarah Lacy, founder and editor of tech website PandoDaily, who is a frequent critic of Uber, having criticised Uber for its “sexism and misogyny.” Smith, who has a background in political reporting, absorbed this information, and shared the contents of their dinner conversation in an incriminating article.

At the dinner, Michael expressed outrage at Lacy’s column and said that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers. He said that he thought Lacy should be held “personally responsible” for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted.

Then he returned to the opposition research plan. Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.

Lacy has since replied to this information, speaking to CNBC’s Squawk Alley about Uber’s comments. She told CNBC that she did not believe that Michael’s rant during dinner was really a rant. The quote below was taken from a retelling of Lacy’s conversation with CNBC, as written by CNN.

The details that he gave and exactly how he was going to go after my family were incredibly detailed. This was a plan he had formulated. This was not a man ranting at dinner.

When you do opposition research on someone, particularly with a million-dollar budget and a six-person team, it’s not going Googling someone’s name. It’s going through their trash. It’s following their kids on the way to school. It’s having vans parked outside their house, all because I said things the company didn’t like.

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Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, has since written a total of 14 tweets to address the situation, where he basically shut Michael down for his comments during the dinner, saying that he “showed a lack of leadership” and a “lack of humanity”.

1/ Emil’s comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company.

2/ His remarks showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals

3/ His duties here at Uber do not involve communications strategy or plans and are not representative in any way of the company approach

4/ Instead, we should lead by inspiring our riders, our drivers and the public at large.

5/ We should tell the stories of progress and appeal to people’s hearts and minds

6/ We must be open and vulnerable enough to show people the positive principles that are the core of Uber’s culture

7/ We must tell the stories of progress Uber has brought to cities and show the our constituents that we are principled and mean well

8/ The burden is on us to show that, and until Emil’s comments we felt we were making positive steps along those lines

9/ But I will personally commit to our riders, partners and the public that we are up to the challenge

10/ We are up to the challenge to show that Uber is and will continue to be a positive member of the community

11/ And furthermore, I will do everything in my power towards the goal of earning that trust.

12/ I believe that folks who make mistakes can learn from them – myself included.

13/ and that also goes for Emil ..

13/ and last, I want to apologize to @sarahcuda

Ashton Kutcher, one of Uber’s investors, have also stepped up on the plate, but instead is backing Michael’s comments at the dinner. He released several tweets, where he speaks about how journalists should indeed be held accountable, posting a picture that says “Look mom I’m a journalist” and writing in one tweet:”#GoodForRatings #TrafficSpike #WelcomeToShockJournalism”

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I Can See You!

But with claims that Uber had never done any research on members of the US media, news about Uber tracking a Buzzfeed reporter was released in rebuttal. Earlier this month, Johana Bhuiyan, was set to interview Josh Mohrer, general manager of Uber New York, at Uber’s New York headquarters in Long Island City. In true Uber fashion, she was driven to HQ in an Uber car. But when she arrived, according to a Buzzfeed article, Mohrer was already outside waiting for her, and said: “There you are, I was tracking you.”

Two months ago, Uber had actually sent Bhuiyan a record of her Uber rides, as part of their discussion regarding Uber’s competitor Lyft.

Image Credit: Buzzfeed
Image Credit: Buzzfeed

Bhuiyan had never given her permission for Uber to track her rides. This sparked a controversy over Uber’s ability to track Uber rides through “Godview”, an internal company tool available to corporate employees that shows locations of Uber vehicles and customers who have requested a car. It is, according to two former Uber employees who spoke to Buzzfeed, was “easily accessible to staff across the company”.

While it was done without clear ill-intention, Uber had demonstrated, at one of the worst times possible, that they can very easily track anyone they wished, more specifically a member of the press.

While Uber never replied to Buzzfeed’s questions on the matter, Uber did post an explanation of its privacy policy on its blogpost on Tuesday.

Uber has a strict policy prohibiting all employees at every level from accessing a rider or driver’s data. The only exception to this policy is for a limited set of legitimate business purposes. Our policy has been communicated to all employees and contractors.

Examples of legitimate business purposes for select members of the team include:

  • Supporting riders and drivers in order to solve problems brought to their attention by the Uber community.

  • Facilitating payment transactions for drivers.

  • Monitoring driver and rider accounts for fraudulent activity, including terminating fake accounts and following up on stolen credit card reports.

  • Reviewing specific rider or driver accounts in order to troubleshoot bugs.

Following Kalanick’s tweets regarding Michael’s comments at dinner, Mohrer was seen posting a celebratory article on Twitter with the hashtag “#HatersGonnaHate”. It was soon deleted from his account, but in internet time, it was way too late.

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Image Credit: Pando.com

What Is Going On With Uber?!

First thing – the phrase “Haters Gonna Hate” never actually works in a PR shitstorm. While Uber execs did start off brushing off the issues (and may internally still be doing so), their image as a company that serves to help and improve people’s lives is crumbling. Understandably, the relationship between companies and the press can often be a strained one, but indirectly threatening to violate rights to people’s privacy not only makes you look worse than you already do, but it is also unethical and terrifying.

One would also question Emil Michael’s sanity in talking about ways to bring critics down to a member of the press at an event meant to create better relations with the press. Though it was off the record, a reporter with a strong moral ground wouldn’t likely ignore a comment like that.

Wolff, who recently wrote about his thoughts on Ben Smith’s reporting on Michael’s comments also affirmed both Smith’s political writing background and describe his writing as “stern, official-sounding voice, censorious and moralistic”. He however also said: “After all, how likely is it that a company planning to investigate reporters is going to divulge this to a reporter, even in an off-the-record conversation?” The point, I believe, isn’t whether Uber plans to carry out the digging, or if they have done so. It is that they shown that they can, and now that they want to. That, to me, is scary enough.

The worst result that could come out of this situation is the backlash affecting the trust Uber users have in the brand. From a brand that is built primarily on trust, it’ll hit it where it hurts. The “God View” situation now raises more questions about your safety as an Uber users – what happens to the data of your movements via Uber? Who can access it? What does Uber do with that information? Imagine an invisible eye watching you from every car ride you take. With just a month’s data, it could reveal personal home addresses, locations of your workplace, or the homes of friends, family, even lovers. It’s not a pretty sight.

This is not an issue that Uber wants on top of its already growing tower of PR issues, and I hope that they have something up their sleeves to calm this storm down (especially with Kutcher happily stoking the fires). And if there is one lesson that company execs can learn from the bright minds of Uber, it’s this – sometimes its best to keep your mouth (real or virtual) shut.

 

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