Why half a billion dollars can’t solve Uber’s PR nightmare

Uber can’t seem to emerge from its public relations nightmare — not even after spending half a billion dollars to reshape its tarnished image, the Washington Post reported.

The ride-hailing company has been plagued by scandal since its global rise, which culminated in a series of public relations mishaps in 2017: Public tension fueled the #DeleteUber movement on social media over its former CEO’s political ties to President Trump and accusations that Uber attempted to profit off a taxi drivers strike. In the following months, former female employees alleged gender bias and, in some cases, sexual harassment at the company, which led to an exodus of top executives that year. From there on out, Uber became framed as a case study of the toxic “bro culture” rampant in Silicon Valley.

Uber has unsuccessfully tried to distance itself from its past, launching multiple national “image repair” campaigns that featured ads pledging its commitment to inclusion and its mission of connecting people, in addition to plugging new in-app safety tools. The company also hired — and fired — its first-ever chief marketing officer, and laid off 400 employees last month who had worked to improve its image, the Post reported. People familiar with the company’s market research data told the Post that despite these efforts last year, public perception of Uber hasn’t shifted much from its crisis-heavy days.

It doesn’t help that the market for ride-hailing apps has become increasingly saturated, providing drivers and riders other options if they choose to forgo Uber. And the company has been hit with a wave of negative press since it’s gone public in May: Uber has yet to be profitable, and it’s losing money.

It’s almost baffling how a company that completely upended the way we commute is now perceived so negatively. I spoke to crisis management expert Melissa Agnes to better understand Uber’s plight and if it could ever redeem itself.

Given how much Uber has reportedly spent on “image repair” campaigns, why do you think these ads did not reportedly change people’s minds about the company?

People can have strong, deep-seated feelings about a company like Uber, especially if it has committed these public mistakes for years. It takes time to rebuild trust in the consumer.

It’s also not just time. The public lost trust in Uber, and that trust needs to be regained at a very deep level. The company can’t just come back and say that it’s trying something new, or that it’s going to do better moving forward. For years, Uber has said that and nothing was done, so why should people expect things to change?

Do you think there is a PR “point of no return” for companies as big as Uber?

Yes, there is a point of no return for companies and big institutions. Back in 2017, it became evident that unless Uber changed its leadership, it had no hope. It just kept getting progressively worse, and that was inevitable. Fortunately for Uber, it rerouted itself and brought on new leadership. It also has funding, and there are not many fierce competitors in its market. Around the world, Uber is still the only option in many places. Because Uber is the first ride-sharing company and brand, it still has a monopoly in the market share. That is a big advantage, in addition to the funding they receive. That benchmark or “point of no return” for Uber is ultimately much higher than a local mom-and-pop or small business.

How has Uber’s public relations approach changed from its early startup days to today?

Uber absolutely tried to cover up or “Band-Aid” the issue through surface-level fixes from the beginning. For example, in 2014, one of the first initial reports of a woman passenger being raped by a driver happened in New Delhi, India, and the company’s CEO came out with a statement. The first part of the statement addressed they were going to put in more rigorous record checks, which should have been put in place initially. Then the second part of the statement was how Uber was going to work with officials in New Delhi to fix the cultural problem of violence against women.

I remember back then thinking, you don’t even have the right processes in place to make sure your drivers aren’t a risk to your passenger, yet you’re promising to help a country fix its problems. Start with the company and then make it outward. That’s when it fell on my radar that Uber might have an even bigger problem on its hands.

Uber has influenced many aspects of how we commute, but do you think that fact means anything to the public?

Uber was the first major ride-sharing company, but with the cumulative effects and fallout from its crises, it ultimately gave its competitor Lyft the advantage to step up and fill that space. We’re living in an era where consumers have a choice and demand more out of a business than solely profit. They want companies to have a positive societal impact, and they want to align with the vision, the mission, and the actions of that company.

That’s a long-winded way of saying Uber once had a competitive edge for being innovative and the first one in the market. Now nobody really cares if they are the first; people care about values.

Then would low public opinion, in Uber’s circumstance, directly lead to bad sales?

Absolutely. Public opinion brings in consumers. If there’s low public opinion of a company and there is another company exactly like that one (for example, Uber versus Lyft), people are going to choose the latter. In fact, it makes it easy for them to choose the competitor. But from what I’ve seen, people also look to compare the prices of a ride before picking a service.

What is Uber missing when it comes to crisis management?

What we’ve seen is more than just public relations disasters. What Uber had was a cultural crisis. Culture is led from the top of the company down to the bottom, and the crisis mostly surrounded its former CEO, Travis Kalanick. In 2017, a culmination of all the things that had been brewing for years finally erupted from the surface. To solve this, Uber is going to need more than delivering a good PR campaign.

Effective crisis management takes two things: It requires the right actions to be performed while you simultaneously communicate that to consumers. You need both of that to work in harmony. You can’t just deliver a statement and expect that to manage the crisis, nor can you just make the changes without communicating them publicly and expect that to manage the crisis. Uber is going need to demonstrate consistency in both of those areas for years to come.

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