Uber will stop at nothing to win. Even, apparently, manipulating the press.
With a valuation approaching $20 billion and more than $1.5 billion of VC to deliver a return on, Uber’s got a lot to prove. And there’s no shortage of obstacles, coming in the form of well-funded startup competitors nipping at its heels, global regulators and taxi and limousine commissions looking to shut it down at every turn, and the nasty habit of its driver “partners” spending as nearly much time protesting the company’s wages and assaulting passengers as they do actually delivering futuristic transportation.
So it’s little surprise that Uber badly wants to spread good news wherever possible. But the company crossed a major ethical line earlier this week, according to an article published this morning by LA Weekly, which claims that an Uber PR representative attempted to trick the publication into publishing what amounted to an advertorial or press release, carefully masked as a citizen-submitted op-ed.
According to the LA Weekly’s Sarah Fenske, the day after her publication ran “a first-person essay critical of Uber” it received a follow-up article, submitted by a stranger, with the headline “Confessions of a Former L.A. Taxi Driver.” Not surprisingly, the piece heavily praised Uber. One excerpt reads:
I’ve driven a lot of things for a lot of different people throughout my career: taxis, limos, and even 18-wheel trucks. But now, I drive for myself, with Uber. I get to be my own boss. I make my own hours. My car is my small business, and I am free to run it as I see fit.
The article was supposedly bylined by a former taxi driver named Cabdi Xuseen, but as Fenske explains, the email to LA Weekly came from another individual, “someone with the improbable name of Tawny Valentine.” The email read, “This piece is exclusive to the L.A. Weekly and we hope that you would consider placing it.”
Skeptical of the article’s origins, LA Weekly replied to Valentine, asking her relationship to Xuseen, the supposed former driver. Rather than answering directly, Valentine simply explained that Xuseen had seen the original story critical of Uber and “wanted to author a response,” offering his cell phone as confirmation.
Apparently they forgot to rehearse the next part.
When LA Weekly’s editorial assistant reached Xuseen by phone, he revealed that he’d never actually read the article submitted under his name.
It turns out that the content of the submission was, in fact, Xuseen’s life story. But it was a highly stylized one written by Uber’s PR team in an effort at damage control.
It was only after being confronted a second time by LA Weekly that Valentine revealed her actual employer: “We work with Uber,” she wrote. No, “sorry we tried to scam you.” No, “we’d like to offer an official comment refuting the claims of your earlier article.” Valentine was utterly unapologetic that her communication up until that point amounted to, effectively, “Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m just a guy who drives for Uber. I like it a lot. Please share my story.”
So to reiterate, the first email offering the op-ed for publishing made no mention of any relationship with Uber. Valentine then failed to clarify her relationship to the company, or in turn to Xuseen, during the initial email exchange. It was only after Xuseen revealed that he didn’t personally write the article that she came clean.
As Fenske puts it:
Uber saw our first-person essay from a disgruntled driver, which was published at 7 a.m. on Monday. By 12:47 p.m. Tuesday, Uber’s PR team had already tracked down a top-rated driver, interviewed him and turned his life story in a neatly phrased 520 word essay, offered exclusively to this newspaper.
Damn they’re good!
Uber is an impressive company. The massive global operation that it’s built in a relatively short time is nothing short of unprecedented. And if the company were run with a shred of humility and integrity, it could be one of the greatest companies that Silicon Valley has ever produced. Sadly, as elite as Uber’s valuation may be, its behavior continues to be equally abhorrent.
Recall this is the same company that declined responsibility for the death of a 6-year-old girl at the hands of one of its drivers, showing no empathy or remorse in the process. It’s the same company whose CEO casually refers to it a Boob-er for the impact is has on his sex life. It’s the same company that recently saw a regional office publish a promotion likening female drivers to call girls.
Next to these offenses, trying to hoodwink the LA Weekly is a minor infraction. But the arrogance and ethical indifference in this case maps directly to each of the above far graver incidents.
Perhaps the saddest part of this latest addition to Uber’s bad behavior file is that despite its billions in resources, Uber’s attempts at treachery are so amateur hour. And it’s not as if the original LA Weekly article was that scathing or that detrimental to the company’s future prospects. You’d think that the company would dedicate its resources to fighting the big fights, or at least do a better job flexing its muscles and win the small ones when it does decide they’re worth fighting.
Lately, however, it seems like Uber can’t fight its way out of a wet paper bag.