Disruptive to dishevelled

Josie Desmarais / iStock by Getty Images. Montreal, Canada - April 29, 2016: A blue and a black balloon are floating outside at a pro Uber rally. The rally at Square Victoria, downtown Montreal, is held by drivers, clients and sympathizer of the ridesharing app.
Uber’s fall from grace is a lesson for all start-ups

When Uber burst onto the scene in 2011, it was a ground-breaker. The company soon became the poster child for the sharing economy. Its use of apps, smartphones and peer-to-peer transactions showed the business world was on a road to disruption.

Uber’s global popularity raced ahead and the newcomer soon became the dominant force in ride-hailing.

Even when faced with protests from taxi drivers and regulators, Uber remained in wider community favour by using cute stunts such as ice-creams on-call and Uber kitten deliveries to grab positive media attention.

The company was riding the wave of enthusiasm. By late 2015, the app was available in 300 cities across 60 countries. Come mid-2016, Uber had 40 million active monthly users worldwide. (http://fortune.com/2016/10/20/uber-app-riders/)

Then came 2017 and, for Uber in the United States, a series of damaging events and claims.

In January, 200,000 customers heeded the #DeleteUber call by removing the app from their phones in protest at opportunistic New York Uber drivers during pro-immigration protests. Then there were claims of sexual harassment and gender bias within the company followed by media coverage alleging an ‘aggressive and unrestrained’ workplace culture. Google launched a lawsuit alleging Uber stole self-driving car technology. A video of Uber’s founder arguing with a driver was posted online in February, only weeks before revelations alleging that Uber was using a tool to deceive government regulators emerged.

Disruption had turned into dishevelment.

Seemingly, in all the early hype and praise for the venture, Uber had lost sight of imperatives for running a business. It failed to grasp the importance of strong and clear human resources, public relations and customer service strategies. The company didn’t appear to understand the motivations and values of its market and relied on novel marketing ideas to build its brand image, rather than developing a solid reputation management plan. And when the negative attention began, it was unprepared to appropriately and quickly deal with the issues.

Uber is not alone. Other start-ups in Australia and overseas have found themselves ill-equipped when their attempts at being edgy and controversial backfire, leading to social media anger and mockery and negative attention from mainstream media.

In the rush to launch a new venture, it is dangerous to ignore traditional business protocols.

Most will seek professional legal and financial advice. However, many overlook the importance of getting professional guidance on risk assessment, human resources, reputation management and public relations.

This extra support is what places the company on the right course for building a progressive and inclusive culture and fostering a strong and well-regarded brand. By developing correct policies and procedures in advance, a business will be prepared if and when an issue develops.

Like any business, start-ups need to surround themselves with good advisors: professionals who not only offer advice, but are also prepared to warn against bad decisions or ideas.

At the point of writing this article, Uber’s USA operation is facing a phase of transition with many of its senior managers and staff leaving the company. An internal investigation on the sexual harassment allegations is underway, while a number of courts around the world are determining rulings on Uber’s future. It is now up to Uber to learn from its past mistakes. Hopefully, and most importantly, other start-ups will also learn that any business – new or old – needs good internal practices and the right advice to succeed.

Sue Cartwright is the Director of Communication Tree Strategic and Online PR Advisory. Where we roll our eyes and think ‘there they go again’, she sees an opportunity to turn our frown upside down with pointed public relations strategy. That’s why we like it when she shares what she knows.

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