This morning, BuzzFeed reported on a dinner where an Uber executive suggested spending a million dollars on opposition research on journalists. He even fingered a primary target: the prominent tech writer Sarah Lacy, who has reported on the company’s sexist practices at PandoDaily.
It is bad, very bad, and raises the question of whether Uber’s antagonizing of journalists, drivers, riders, city councils, taxi commissions, and on and on might finally start to hurt its bottom line. (If I were a Lyft executive, I would consider sending the Uber guy in question an Edible Arrangement via pink-mustachioed car.)
Here’s from BuzzFeed’s report on the dinner, which the executive believed to be off the record:
Over dinner, [Emil Michael] outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine….
Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life. Michael at no point suggested that Uber has actually hired opposition researchers, or that it plans to. He cast it as something that would make sense, that the company would be justified in doing.
Lacy, understandably, did not take well to Michael’s comments, publishing an article on “just how far Uber will go to silence journalists and attack women” and describing her personal distress over the incident.
It is just the latest in a series of public-relations disasters stemming from Uber’s questionable business practices or its executives’ crappy attitudes. There’s Travis Kalanick, its chief executive, calling it “Boob-er,” because of all the women he’s picking up. There’s the company arming contractors with burner phones to sabotage its rival, Lyft. There’s the promotion in France, pairing riders with “hot chick” drivers. The list goes on and on: the kidnapping of a passenger, the complaints of its drivers, the denials of liability when accidents happen.
Up until now, those incidents do not appear to have slowed Uber’s business down. The company is quadrupling its sales every year, Kalanick says, and is now worth $18 billion. But this morning, a flood of users said they were deleting the application and switching to Lyft, given the Uber’s executive’s comments.
That gets to the real issue with its executives’ repeated public-relations disasters and the general public perception that Uber is not a good-faith operator.
Previously, Uber used controversy to publicize its anti-incument business message. City councils would oppose it, or taxis would sue it, and Uber would get to telegraph to the world: We’re here to bring you a cheaper, better service, and these folks are trying to stop us! But the more recent incidents are of a different sort. They indicate that the company is untrustworthy, that it misuses customer data, that it would blackmail a prominent reporter, that it lacks a moral backbone. Lyft, on the other hand, has gone on a successful public-relations campaign, offering itself up as a warmer, fuzzier, friendlier, pink alternative to the black-and-white, bullying libertarians over at Uber.
That marketing differentiation, at this point, seems to be the main differentiation between the two companies. In many cities, there is little variation in terms of waiting times, ease of application, or price. That means there is nothing keeping customers and drivers from abandoning Uber. And at this point, its executives seem to be begging for that to happen.