Taxi for one! How Uber exec drove into ethics storm
19 November 2014 -
Senior figure at lift-sharing firm forced to apologise for threatening to probe private lives of reporters behind allegations of misogyny
When does defending your firm’s reputation spill over into biting the hand that feeds your PR? If events of this week are anything to go by, Emil Michael – senior vice president of lift-sharing company Uber – has provided a vivid illustration. In a startling outburst at a private dinner party in New York, Michael infuriated the media by boasting that he would hire a team to dig dirt on the reporters behind the company’s recent run of bad press.
According to Buzzfeed editor in chief Ben Smith – who was present at the party – Michael outlined his plans to gain revenge on the press, following a series of articles that questioned Uber’s ethics. Smith’s report from the event stated: “Over dinner, he 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.”
Added to that, two former employees of Uber – founded by CEO Travis Kalanick (pictured below) – told Buzzfeed that it would be easy for the firm to track customers’ whereabouts with the aid of an internal company tool called “God View,” which shows the locations of Uber vehicles and passengers who have requested cars. Indeed, Buzzfeed reporter Johana Bhuiyan claims she was tracked without permission by Uber general manager Josh Mohrer earlier this month, on her way to the firm’s Long Island HQ for an interview.
Responding to Buzzfeed’s publication of his comments, Michael swiftly apologised. “The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner – borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for – do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach,” he said in a statement. “They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them.”
Michael’s original comments are thought to have specifically singled out PandoDaily editor Sarah Lacy, who has been a vocal critic of Uber’s treatment of women. In one article, Lacy wrote of how she deleted the Uber app after a promotion in France aimed to pair riders with “hot chick” drivers. Michael is alleged to have suggested that Lacy should be held “personally responsible” for any woman who has deleted Uber and then been sexually assaulted, as taxi drivers are more likely than Uber drivers to commit such crimes.
Unwilling to accept Michael’s apology in the wake of the Buzzfeed piece, Lacy hit back. “Uber’s escalation of dangerous behaviour has just had its whistleblower moment,” she wrote, “and tellingly, the whistleblower wasn’t a staffer with a conscience, it was an executive boasting about the proposed plan.” She added: “lest you think this was just a rogue actor and not part of the company’s game plan, let me remind you Kalanick telegraphed exactly this sort of thing when he sat on stage … last spring and said he was hiring political operatives whose job would be to ‘throw mud’. I naively thought he just meant [at] taxi companies.”
Lacy stressed: “Let me also remind you: This is a company you trust with your personal safety every single time you use it. Let me also remind you: The executive in question has not been fired.”
Whether or not Michael is fired for his controversial comments, the pressure on Uber’s PR and management has reached an all-time high. While Michael has indicated that he thought the dinner party was an off-the-record event, the fallout provides bosses with a timely reminder that maintaining professional relations with the media is required in all environments. Further, Uber’s rapid growth and popularity – which has seen it attract millions of users in more than 45 countries – has brought with it greater attention from the media and public. Many of the critical articles that had offended Michael concerned its decision to charge customers more at peak times, while a BBC report alleged that Uber would only talk to potential investors who agreed not to back its rivals.
In the wake of Buzzfeed’s expose, online tech journal Gizmodo went so far as to recommend six alternative brands to Uber that readers could utilise for similar services.
Meanwhile, Guardian columnist Megan Carpentier accused Uber of having a “woman problem” – writing that the “cultural narrative driving the threats from Uber executives, including its misogynist CEO” is that “women who aren’t perfect deserve to have bad things happen to them … apparently the responsible party is yet another woman who dared call into question whether we were ever that safe in Uber’s cars or using Uber’s app to begin with.”
Not a great day in the office for Uber’s top team.
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Image of Uber logo courtesy of 360b; Image of Travis Kalanick courtesy of Debby Wong, both via Shutterstock.
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