Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

Uber Gets Back in the Driving Seat with Good Crisis Comms

Last Friday, Londoners woke to the news that ride-hailing company Uber has been stripped of its licence to operate in the Capital. The company’s current licence expires on September 30th, and Transport for London (TfL) has decided not to renew it, on the basis that the company is not a ‘fit and proper’ private car hire operator.

London’s transportation agency said it rejected Uber’s application to renew its licence because ‘its approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility’ in relation to reporting serious criminal offences, obtaining medical certificates and conducting driver background checks. Another issue of contention is Uber’s use of Greyball, a software tool used by Uber to identify riders and bar certain customers from travelling with the app. The controversy revolves around the fact that the software can be used to deny rides to anyone trying to disrupt Uber operations. This includes potential law enforcement officials who are investigating Uber or its drivers.

The move by TfL, is a serious blow to one of Silicon Valley’s fastest rising companies, and has sparked an outcry from customers, government ministers and Uber’s 40,000 drivers.

A considered response

Perhaps more surprising than TfL’s announcement is the way the crisis has been handled by Uber CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi. It seems he has learnt from former CEO Travis Kalanick’s mistakes when it comes to crisis comms. Rather than ignore the issue, Khosrowshahi reacted straight away, delivering a thoughtful measured response on social media, and in doing so, has shown a level of emotional intelligence that’s not often seen by companies in times of crisis.

Khosrowshahi made a public apology in an open letter published on Twitter. It said: ‘While Uber has revolutionised the way people move in cities around the world, it’s equally true that we’ve got things wrong along the way. On behalf of everyone at Uber globally, I apologise for the mistakes we’ve made.’ He added that Uber would appeal the decision on behalf of millions of Londoners, saying that the company does so ‘with the knowledge that we must also change’.

The immediate response is key

The letter, which was published immediately after TfL made the announcement, hit the right tone with the public, who started tweeting support of the ailing firm. And Uber didn’t waste any time capitalising on it. The brand posted a petition on Change.org and sent an email to customers, saying, ‘by wanting to ban our app from the capital, Transport for London and their chairman, the Mayor, have given in to a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice. To defend the livelihoods of 40,000 drivers, and the consumer choice of millions of Londoners, sign this petition asking to reverse the decision to ban Uber in London.’

The petition has already gathered over 700,000 signatures, showing huge public approval for the service. And it’s put TfL in a tricky situation. Considering the strength of public reaction and the measured response from Uber, if they refuse to enter into negotiations, they’ll come out looking like the bad guys.

From a PR perspective, Khosrowshahi’s response was spot on. Rather than pass the buck or deny responsibility, he admitted the company has made mistakes, apologised for them, and made a commitment to change things for the better. And it looks like the canny PR move may ensure Uber stays on the road, as Sadiq Khan, the London mayor and chair of TfL said he welcomed Khosrowshahi’s apology. ‘Obviously I’m pleased that he’s acknowledged the issues that Uber faces in London,’ Khan said. ‘Even though there’s a legal process in place, I’ve asked TfL to make themselves available to meet with him.’

Communicate with a PR pro

It’ll be interesting to see how the whole thing plays out, but one thing’s for sure: the way Uber handled and continues to handle its communications will have a major impact on the outcome. If you want to avoid a PR crisis or are in the midst of one give me a call now on 020 8274 0807.

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