Uber under the spotlight

Uber reception desk at Silicon Valley HQ

Love or loathe Uber, there's no mistaking the quinticorn's success and Silicon Valley rock star status. And despite being shrouded in scandal and controversy, the company has changed how many of us travel forever and for the better.

Valued at more than USD 50 billion at the end of last year with plans to raise another couple of billion dollars that would value the company at more than USD 60 billion, the company's app delivers an average of two million rides a day across 58 countries. It's a booming business.

Mine is a personal and professional interest in the company and recently I had the opportunity to visit the Uber HQ in San Francisco with Open Innovation Lab Norway.

As a PR and communications professional I'd love to experience what goes on in the Uber comms department out of sheer curiosity. I bet there's never a dull moment counteracting the negative press and sentiment and handling the blunders of CEO Travis Kalanick.

Managing the reputation of the world's most valuable and disruptive tech company is surely no easy task, especially when it can take a lifetime to cement credibility and seconds to destroy it. On the flip side, I do admire how some of the Uber PR campaigns have managed to save the company billions of dollars (New York campaign). I imagine PR students across the globe use Uber as a case study.

As a customer, I have used the app in the US, the UK and Chile (where you can also pay in cash) and been very pleased. I love the convenience. When I'm in an Uber I often chat with the drivers to find out their impression of the'quinticorn', especially in the US. On the whole, the Uber driver experience has been positive, with some gripes about tipping and the abuse of the pool rides by passengers, and there was growing concern about Uber's association with President Donald Trump, which resulted in the customer-driven #DeleteUber campaign and the subsequent loss of 200,000 customers in a single weekend.

My visit to Uber HQ was pre #DeleteUber and comprised of a company presentation read from a script by an employee. I realised after signing an NDA that this would be a 'strictly business' affair.The presentation highlighted information that's in the public domain, like market growth, peak times of app usage and data regarding how shared self-driving cars could reduce the number of cars on the road by 90%. There was not much room for questions and I left without learning anything new. I did get a brief glimpse into the company culture, which felt a bit like visiting a secret organisation where no one knows what they can say to whom and where no one knows who knows what. It was friendly enough though.

Despite being so successful Uber has had a lot of bad press that you would expect to damage its business. Some say the CEO Travis Kalanick has become a liability. Kalanick chose to sit on President Trump's advisory council, which gave the impression that Uber supported Trump's stance on immigrants, resulting in the #DeleteUber. Kalanick has since stepped down from Trump's council with assurances that Uber didn't support Trump's immigration policies and stating that the company wouldn't be where it is today without immigrant workers, but more than 200,000 people had already deleted the app.

Other bad press includes issues regarding security, plus recent reports of sexual harassment and gender bias, law suits over IP, and most recently Kalanick was caught on camera behaving badly towards an Uber driver resulting in his public plea to get 'leadership help'.

All this at a time when Uber's main rival, Lyft, which operates in 65 cities, is upping the anti with shrewd CSR activity such as opposing the immigration ban and making donations of USD 1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union during the next four years. Many people talk of switching to Lyft, but it's only currently available in the US and has also had its share of bad PR, particularly regarding security issues.

Although Lyft is currently basking in a brighter light than Uber, I wonder if the quinticorn has gotten too big to be damaged? Uber has done lots to shape the odds in its favour – mostly with the help of strong investors – to become the quinticorn it is today and its technology has disrupted the ride hailing industry, but how much does the company's alleged unethical behaviour affect the business in today's more conscious society where consumers increasingly call their service providers to account on their business practises and ethics?

Fast growth results in growing pains and Uber has its fair share. Any company that disrupts a whole – global – industry is bound to meet resistance from the disrupted stakeholders and there will be battles. Even though traditional taxi companies might have suffered from the sudden entry of Uber, Lyft and others, the overriding impact on and benefit to society is undeniable.

So whether you love or loathe Uber and despite its current reputation, Uber looks here to stay and perhaps all it has to do is improve the way it shapes its odds and its leadership. I'll be watching to see if Kalanick does get the help he's said he needs and how that filters through the company. I'll also give Lyft a try next time I'm in the US. 

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