Lessons from Uber senior VP’s “off the record” rant

Yesterday, Buzzfeed published a story on how Uber senior VP Emil Michael threw around the idea of hiring opposition researchers and journalists to look into the private lives and families of journalists over a private dinner in New York last week where a Buzzfeed editor and other journalists were present.

According to the Buzzfeed story, the publication’s journalists were not told that the story was off the record.

Also according to the story, Michael also vented about PandoDaily’s editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy who had previously written about deleting the Uber app and had accused the company of being sexist and misogynist. Lacy has since written a response to the Buzzfeed story here.

After the two stories were published, Michael sent Lacy an email apology and this morning, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick apologised for Michael’s comments through a series of tweets.

The first tweet read, “Emil’s comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company.”

And according to a second tweet by Kalanick, “His [Michael’s] remarks showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals.”

Ray Rudowski, Regional Director, Crisis and Training at Edelman Hong Kong, says one lesson to be drawn from the Uber debacle is that commenting on journalism in general is a no-no for senior executives.

“The role of the journalist is to report. Senior executives of any company or government officials commenting on the role of the media is in and of itself confrontational,” Rudowski says.

“Both have a job to do, which involves interacting with each other. It doesn’t make sense to look at this channel of communication in a hostile way.”

Another question raised by the current PR crisis faced by Uber is whether there is a way to clearly draw the line between what’s private and public, what’s off and on the record.

Rachel Catanach, MD of FleishmanHillard Hong Kong, says nothing is truly off the record.

“For senior executives, the digital world means that there is very little separation between public and private – everything they do and say can be publicized in a tweet,” Catanach says.

“Consumers don’t distinguish between what’s said in public versus what’s said in private. This means executives need to filter all their actions through an ‘on-the-record’ lenses.”

Rudowski agrees, and also comments more generally on the futility of venting your frustrations about criticism of your brand in your capacity as a senior executive.

“One of the key takeaway learnings from this is that the media is no longer ‘traditional’. Everything is on-record.  As an executive, when you represent the organisation, the story has to be clear and there is nothing to be gained from expressing this type of frustration,” he says.

“Once these types of comments are published, they are often magnified and become the story, diverting attention away from whatever good you are doing as an organisation and company.”

He adds that organisations are under more than just traditional scrutiny – in fact, all stakeholders and customers have a variety of channels to repeat what brands have says to them and drive perceptions of brands.

This goes hand-in-hand with the rise of citizen journalism and bloggers.

“The cost of entry into citizen journalism is an iPhone or a camera and that makes you a ‘journalist’.  For example in Occupy Central, citizen journalists are driving a lot of narratives, exposing and correcting stories in real time,” Rudowski says.

“In this situation, calibration, structure and discipline is required for executives, where a greater awareness of what your story is and of staying on message is needed.”

Looking towards the future, Rudowski says in managing a PR crisis like the one currently faced by Uber, apology is one step in the right direction. However, after the apology contains the crisis, the next step is to move towards rebuilding trust that may have been broken.

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