For those engaged in reputation management, Uber represents a fascinating and live case study, writes FSC’s managing director Mark Stretton.
A globally iconic exemplar for how disruptive and revolutionary technology can drive the proverbial coach and horses through an industry, it is also fast becoming the poster child for the havoc mesmerising growth can wreak on a company itself.
In the case of the ride hailing app, an inadequate and immature infrastructure that seemingly remained in the Neolithic period meant that while the app was scaling stratospherically, the kind of processes, policies and systems that most mature businesses have in place as a matter of course, were simply missing. It has left the business and the brand horribly exposed in the face of a number of issues.
Long before the current focus on harassment in the workplace, Uber was the subject of a number of stories pertaining to a troubling culture, mainly in its home market of the US. It has also seen fallout from controversy surrounding the gig economy and worker rights. It then lost its private operator licence in the UK capital when Transport for London said Uber was not ‘fit and proper’ amid safety concerns (although it is appealing the decision).
Most recently, the concealment of a data breach emerged, reportedly affecting 57 million users and drivers.
A sense of crisis around Uber’s basic governance pervades. As a consequence, the board is having to signal change, fast.
Earlier this year, Travis Kalanick, the maverick visionary and driving force behind Uber, conceded he was no longer the right person to lead the company. Dara Khosrowshahi, the highly regarded CEO of Expedia (a client of this agency for a number of years), was parachuted in to take the helm.
Khosrowshahi has so far demonstrated a deft touch in handling the issues, responding quickly and succinctly. He quickly distanced himself and the company from its initial, and wholly ill-conceived, combative stance to the TfL decision, publishing an open letter to Londoners via Twitter in which he apologised for the mistakes the company had made.
Importantly, he promised change. He wrote: “We won’t be perfect, but we will listen to you; we will look to be long-term partners with the cities we serve; and we will run our business with humility, integrity and passion.” He then assured Londoners that the company was fully committed to making “things right and [to] keep this great global city moving safely”. The full letter is well worth a read.
Uber is an extraordinary and amazing global success story that, like Airbnb or Facebook, demonstrates the power and scale of the digital economy. It is also a timely reminder – an extreme example – of the existential threat faced by a business that cannot evidence adequate maturity as an organisation – be it as an employer that can safeguard its own people or as a global citizen that cares about its impact.
Ultimately, businesses must be able to credibly and meaningfully communicate that they care as much about people, their communities and their purpose, as they do about profit, scale and shareholders. Because the best businesses, and the best leaders, know that these two sets of values are intrinsically and inextricably linked.