Uber Breaks First PR Commandment: Tell The Truth

Uber Breaks First Commandment_Tell TheThe first commandment of media relations: Tell the truth.

A new company attempting to enter the St. Louis market broke the commandment in the middle of a successful medial relations campaign. The sin is more notable when considering the company was winning a media relations battle for the public’s favor and opinion against a government bureaucracy with archaic and foolish requirements regarding public engagement.

Now, the company must rebuild trust and credibility with the general public, a large and respected council of businesses in the region and its employees.

Uber is a $50 billion ride-sharing service company that uses a smartphone app to compete with taxicabs. It operates in many countries and hundreds of cities throughout the world. It’s attempting to gain a foothold in St. Louis, but the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission is requiring Uber to meet the same standards as licensed taxicab drivers—drug testing, Missouri Highway Patrol background and FBI fingerprint checks.  Many other municipalities throughout the country are confronting Uber on a wide range of regulatory issues.

As a public hearing approached in St. Louis on the matter, the Taxicab Commission announced it would accept public comments only by written letter and none by e-mail. Uber created an online form letter where supporters simply entered their name and e-mail address as a signature. (As of Wednesday, July 15, 2015, Uber collected 7,483 signatures according to the counter on its website.)

(Vine video by Michael Calhoun [@michaelcalhoun] of KMOX.)

Uber successfully pitched several media outlets as they covered the delivery of letters on July 7, 2015, to the Taxicab Commission. Uber representatives carried nine cardboard bank boxes from a vehicle and stacked them outside the door of the Taxicab Commission. An 8½-by-11 piece of paper with the words, “1,000 Petitions” was attached to each box.

Uber representatives told reporters they were delivering boxes of thousands of petitions to the Taxicab Commission when they actually contained bottles of water.

Uber representatives told reporters they were delivering nine boxes containing thousands of petitions to the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission. Eight of the nine boxes contained only bottles of water.

When the media departed, the Taxicab Commission discovered eight of the nine boxes didn’t contain any documents—just a bottle of water taped to the bottom. One box had printed letters and a digital drive with signatures. After the Taxicab Commission revealed the discovery to the media, Brooke Anderson (@brooke0115), an Uber spokeswoman, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the empty boxes were symbolic. Uber released a statement, saying they, “wanted to make sure commissioners were able to stay hydrated going through so many public documents.”(Anderson is a former gubernatorial and campaign communications director for former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and served in his administration.)

Things got worse for Uber on Wednesday, July 15, 2015. A judge in California, home of Uber’s headquarters, recommended the ride-sharing service operations be suspended and the business fined $7.3 million.

“This industry has done everything it can to avoid, dismiss and coerce themselves out of regulation, and this decision is welcome from that standpoint,” Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in Berkely told the Los Angeles Times.  “They’ve been scofflaws. They take every advantage and avoid every requirement.”

An organization’s values must matter more than its revenues, growth rates or profit. Trust is a fundamental and foundational value. When employees, the media, government and the general public witness dishonesty or an intentional act to deceive, the organization will be forced to pay the price for its actions. A great amount of steadfast work will be required to regain trust of stakeholders.

Some may say this was merely stunt and doesn’t rise to a level of concern. But if Uber can’t be trusted to accurately and honestly represent themselves before a government commission and before the general public via the news media, will consumers trust them to comply with regulations, policies and procedures to ensure the health and safety of its customers?


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